21 Keys to the Cellar

Cellaring is a maze in which a lot of money can be lost – unnecessarily. Here are 21 essential things I’ve learned about cellaring.

Words Campbell Mattinson

The longer you cellar, the more you wish you’d heeded good advice. It’s hard enough keeping your mitts off the good stuff – the last thing you want to do is make expensive rookie mistakes. It’s been 21 years since I first cellared a wine, so here are my key lessons per each year of cellaring experience.

1. Old does not automatically mean good
There’s a widespread misconception that all wine gets better as it ages and rises in value. It’s more accurate to say the opposite is true. Most wine declines in quality beyond two to three years from release. Wines that improve over the long-term (beyond 10 years from release) are rare. And most old wine is more or less worthless as a drink and also in sale terms. Old wine that has been badly stored or made to be consumed young, generally tastes disgusting.

2. Keep it cool
You can keep your wine immaculately cool and dark for 20 years, and then expose it to harmful levels of heat for just an hour and undo all the good work of the previous 20 years. Wine is perishable and heat is its enemy. Heat dulls the flavours, develops it prematurely and robs it of its life. If you’re going to cellar, you need to find a way to keep your wine below 17 degrees Celsius, but ideally between 12 and 15 degrees. If you go above this range, factor in that your wines will develop at a faster rate and are unlikely to cellar long-term.

3. Keep it stable
Some wines turn out more robust than we expect. I’ve tasted fantastic 30-year-old wines that were not stored in ideal conditions. They are exceptions and were obviously blessed with exceptionally sound corks. Although the temperature they were cellared in may not have been ideal, there’s a good chance they were stored at a relatively stable temperature (without wild fluctuations). Slow and steady wins the cellaring race.

4. Don’t let there be light
It’s always horrifying to see tip-top quality, cellar-worthy wines on sale in clear-glass display cabinets beamed with bright light. This is no way to store wine and will dim its quality. Light-struck, I believe is the term. If you see a wine stored like this at a good price – and you think it might have been there for a while – walk on by, it won’t be worth it.

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