Cellaring Essentials

By Dave Brookes

For those bitten by the bug, wine can form strong emotional ties. It could be your parents or your grandparents favourite wine that you remember from childhood. It could be the first truly great bottle of wine that resonated with you deeply. What you drank on that first date, when you proposed, while celebrating a big occasion or from the birth year of your children can all provide strong emotional attachments to a wine.

I remember the first moment that prompted me to start cellaring wine. A superb bottle of 1991 Rene Rostaing La Landonne Cote Rotie, smuggled into the dining room of a Double Bay hotel in Sydney from a local wine store and consumed with a French workmate over steak-frites. It was one of those ‘eureka’ moments that set me on the path of cellaring and, indeed, immersed in wine.

There is nothing quite like the experience of pulling out a perfectly aged bottle of wine from the cellar and finding it in its happy place; captivating and complex, a pleasure to drink. However, there are those times when, with great anticipation, you grab a bottle of wine you have lovingly put away and it’s shot, gone, kaput; the likely culprit of less-than-ideal cellaring conditions, closure failure, or perhaps hanging onto it a little too long. It doesn’t really matter why it happened, but it is heartbreaking and can be an expensive exercise.

It is worth reinforcing some key pointers to ensure everyone can enjoy the collecting experience – and aged wine.

The golden rules

First, and probably most importantly, choose the right wines. While the vast majority of wines produced today will arguably improve with a few years in the cellar, they are mostly made to be consumed relatively early in their lives. Lineage and pedigree of the wine, as well as the producer, are always of the utmost importance.

Of course, recommendations from wine writers, wine store staff, family and friends come into play here, along with your own continuing education in the world of wines. And over time, you’ll also come to know where your own personal wine-drinking sweet spot is: you may prefer wines still in the exuberance of their youth, rather than mellower, more complex, subdued wines with some age on them. Or you may find you’re somewhere in-between. It’s a constant learning experience. Regardless, picking wines that have a track record of cellaring well is the obvious place to start.

As for cellaring conditions, keep it cool – ideally somewhere around 12 to 15 degrees and certainly below 17. Wines kept at warmer temperatures tend to mature at a faster rate. Keep the wines stable, as temperature fluctuations are your sworn enemy. Cool and calm is the mantra.

Add in a dark, vibration-free environment, with a relative humidity of around 75 per cent, and your precious wines will be in a happy place. Of course, quality wine storage options for the home are freely available, from 24-bottle wine fridges through to palatial walk-in fridges for those with space. And for anyone seriously bitten by the wine bug, the option of retrofitting a spare room into a purpose-built cellar is another option. Professional offsite wine cellaring options are also available and particularly good if you find it hard to keep your hands off the wines before they reach their prime drinking window.

In a nutshell, research your wine choices, store them with care, try a bottle occasionally to see how they are evolving and you will be rewarded handsomely.

For those who can’t wait

Although cellaring can be a very rewarding pastime, there are other options for those who don’t want to head down the collecting route. Some producers, those with economies of scale, hold wines back in their own cellars and release them when they deem them to be at their peak. Yalumba’s stunning The Contours Riesling as well as Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling and Margaret Semillon are just three top examples for starters.

It is also worth getting on the mailing list of wineries, as they will often release museum stock to subscribers. Making the effort to visit your favourite wine regions is also highly recommended as it’s possible to find back-vintage gems available as cellar-door only wines. And don’t forget to check winery websites; a quick peek at the Tyrrell’s and Brokenwood sites, for example, show some great older vintages available. Wine action houses are other avenues for those seeking access to older wines without the burden of cellaring. It’s a case of buyer beware, though, because you don’t know the provenance of the wine in question as cellaring conditions vary.

Reputable auction houses will list older wines’ ullage levels – the amount of wine in the bottle that has dropped – with accuracy and are always on hand to answer queries about a wine’s condition and past cellaring conditions.

And for those seeking blue-chip wines with some age under their belt that have a more reliable history, wine retailers are a great option. Some stores even hold back wines for release at a later date, such as the Dan Murphy’s Cellar Release program.

Are we still cellaring?

Is cellaring still a ‘thing’ or are our lives so busy that we have more pressing matters on our plate than worrying about putting a few wines down? Langton’s auction manager Tamara Grischy believes the secondary market for aged wine remains strong. “People are still cellaring wines and perhaps even more so, particularly as our tastes with wine and food have matured and become more sophisticated,” she says.

Wine consumers are more knowledgeable and appreciate the idea that looking after and cellaring wines can offer a delightful experience. The accessibility, with regards to the size and cost of wine fridges, has made this item a household staple for many kitchens and this certainly has added to the ease of putting wines down and having easy access to them.”

So what wines are people putting down right now? Apparently there are no real surprises. “The classic varieties from the classic regions,” Tamara says. “Barossa shiraz, Margaret River cabernet, South Australian regions and the Barossa in particular seem to be in favour. Of course, the Penfolds brand, with its pedigree, dominates and is included in all great cellars.”