News and views | How to build a wine cellar from scratch

News and views

How to build a wine cellar from scratch

As I'm in the process of helping my son create a wine cellar I asked my Twitter followers if they had any tips to share. This incredibly helpful and detailed response came back from Mike of the wine blog Please Bring Me My Wine and he gave me permission to share it with you.

MIke writes: "Funnily enough, this has been a topic that popped up a few times recently when I’ve been at tastings or wine dinners. Lots of people getting into wine find that they end up hooked, and that they buy more than they can practically store. (I’m writing this from my small flat in North London surrounded by boxes and boxes! How does my poor wife put up with me?) So maybe it’s time to build a cellar.

You do need a bit of space. My parents bought a run down old shack in Piemonte in Northern Italy about 10 years ago. Spending time there is actually what started getting me drinking wine. My dad's a DIY nut and he fell in love with and bought one of these falling down places you see on hillsides. 10 years of work and we now have running water, electricity, and structural stability. Let’s be fair, you kind of need those. My dad, however, is now looking to enjoy his retirement. So now it's my turn to take on the challenge, as he just wants to sit there, sip his wine, and enjoy the weather. I can't blame him. Unfortunately as the child of a serial DIY-er, I’ve got to have to have a go myself.

So, the first project for me was to reconstruct the cellar. When you’re doing this there are main things you have to consider:

Dryness

It goes without saying I guess. You need to have a good scout around for any obvious signs of damp (as in this photo of the cellar before it was converted). If you find any then find the source and it's fairly easy to fix (there are lots of hints on YouTube). For me it was about repointing the walls (sticking mortar in the cracks in the stone work, to guard against damp and unwanted airflow), and getting a cement floor down. Both these are fairly easy to do. You can hire cement mixers from the hire shops that aren't too expensive. Alternatively it's always handy to become friends with a builder!

If you're worried about the dryness after a while you can also stick a dehumidifierdown there too. If you’re feeling flush then you can get one built in or maybe just get a free standing one. This is pretty useful to keep the air flowing too.

The humidity level you should be aiming at by the way is 60-70%. You don't want damp, but also don't want to dry out the corks.

Temperature

Hugely important, obviously. The ideal temperature is between 11-13°C but it's more about keeping the temperature constant than getting a 100% spot on temperature some of the time. If you don’t know this already, check over a few months (during winter is especially important) that the fluctuations aren’t over the top.

If you're worried here, then as with the dehumidifier, it’s possible to get heating systems built in fairly cheaply. One tip my dad gave me was to use geothermal heating from the garden (if you’ve got one) or solar panels if you have the sun. It'll be free after you've installed it.

Light

Obviously you’re looking to avoid sunlight like the plague, and when you're installing lights use LEDs. They don't emit heat, they’re more energy efficient, and they last longer. If you drop the ceiling down with plasterboard and skim it, that'll help with the light installation, and you'll be able to address any issues with dryness as you go.

What are you storing?

Are you storing stuff such that you might want to sell later in its life? Or is this all for your own personal consumption? For me, it's all for my own drinking - so as long as I'd ticked boxes then I was happy. But if some of your stuff is potentially for future sale, then it’s always worth checking with a couple of auction houses to see if they have extra requirements.

Also it might be worth getting a cage down there too. If your house is already alarmed then the alarm company will fit an extra sensor for very little. I met a lovely chap at a tasting the other day from a company that specialises in wine insurancewho gave me some great pointers. It is always worth knowing their requirementstoo.

Also when it comes to space, think about what you'll be doing down there. Is it just for wine storage? I've left a bit of space in mine for some brewing, after I resurrected a few of the demijohns (I know this sounds like underwear, but they’re actually traditional barrels for fermentation/storage) we found down there. We’ve got lots of fruit trees, with cherries and figs and others. Maybe if you’ve got an apple tree in the garden, you might want to stick a barrel or two down there to make some cider? It’s easier to think this through at the start than have to reorganise half way into the build.

What do you want it to look like?

Thing is, you can go nuts trying to make the thing look amazing, like the inside of a space ship or something. There are some exceptionally good companies out there that do this. One request on Twitter and you’ll have 5 quotes in 5 minutes. Unfortunately my lottery numbers haven’t come up yet, so whenever I’m spending money I ask two questions: Do I need this? And Is this value for money?

I wasn’t building the cellar to be a show room. It's a lot easier and cheaper to stick a small but nice looking area in your kitchen or front room, with a wine fridge and a place for a few "ready to drink" bottles, leaving the rest of it downstairs in a safe, dry, cool place.

When it comes to racking, I don't think you can go far wrong with iron or steel racks. (You can stack bottles on top of each other, but without airflow if one cork gets attacked by rot, they all will.) There's lots of specialist companies that will supply these, but maybe have a think exactly what you want and then get in touch with a metal works near you and price up a bespoke effort. That'll cut margins and help with space too.

How to install it

As I mentioned earlier, DIY was a must for me. I actually love doing it (sort of!). If you or anyone close to you is up for having a go at this yourself then it's really not an expensive process. Even if you get a builder down there it won't take much longer than a week to install a reasonable sized one, which you can assume is around £2k worth of labour. It’s not cheap, but not ridiculous either.

I wasn’t building a cellar so that I can tell people I’ve got a cellar. Don’t get me wrong; it’s very cool to have one. However, if you start buying a lot of wine (whatever the value of it), you need to think seriously about it. Can you imagine buying all that gorgeous plonk and for it to spoil because you’ve not stored it properly? Shocking!

My cellar is still not quite finished, as I have to do it during my holidays. Luckily at the minute my dad does a great job of keeping my wine at consistently low volumes! I think he’s enjoying his retirement . . .

Mike blogs at Please Bring Me My Wine "a wine novice's guide to getting stuck in to grape juice."

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