How to create a modest wine cellar on a budget
You don't have to have a luxury apartment to have a wine cellar argues Peter Pharos. Here's how he did it on a budget.
"One Hyde Park appears to have been built with the explicit intention of accumulating reasons to dislike the 0.01%. In the city with the smallest living spaces in Europe, it has apartments so big that architects didn’t know how to fill them. Its services are fit for a Bond villain, from catering by Heston and Daniel, to SAS-trained 24-hour security. However, when one of its penthouses recently made the news, the Guardian’s eye was drawn to…its two wine cellars.
Which was great: I am used to being in distinctly non-tycoon territory, but it appeared that this time I was right up there with the jet-set. You see, I have not two, but three wine cellars, of sorts anyway. Put together, they set me back about fifteen hundred quid.
In common with many others, my first foray in wine storage was a cheap wine fridge. It did its job fine temperature-wise and looked rather sleek, but I never managed to get the humidity right and around the four-year mark I would see the odd cork drying out.
Next came a DIY solution: a big old broken fridge. I removed the motor, put it in a rarely-lit room, and filled the door shelves with ice in plastic water bottles. Storage conditions-wise, this worked liked a charm, with temperature at a constant 14 °C and humidity at around 70%. However, it did require me to change the water bottles every few days; not undoable, but after a while it felt like having a very stationary pet.
A proper solution had to be found as, once you start collecting wine, you end up with much more of it than you thought you would. It’s unsurprising in a way: you get all the fun of looking, thinking, and choosing wine, but none of the guilt of actually drinking it.
As both a nomad and a perpetual flat-dweller, I did not have the space in any abode of mine, so I appropriated a thin sliver of a room in my parents’ house. After a fair amount of DIY (embarrassingly, little of it mine – cheers Dad!) and the installation of an air conditioning unit, my dream cellar was ready.
Is it worth having a wine cellar anyway?
Why bother have a wine cellar in the first place though? After all, the real subtext of the Guardian’s piece is not that a wine cellar is expensive per se, but that laying down wine is an inherently posh activity. As people that deal with the business of wine never cease to remind us, the vast majority of wine is bought to be consumed immediately, at times quasi-literally so.
As wine writers often observe, even venerable wines associated with long ageing now seem to be made in a more approachable style. Surely ageing wine is something intended for prestige bottles? And given the unhinged prices of said bottles, surely that’s the sort of sport best reserved for One Hyde Park?
Actually, no. I didn’t start a cellar to age my non-existent Pauillac collection. I started it to lay down reasonably-priced bottles that could go the distance. And I didn’t start it so it pays off twenty years later, but as early as three – which it duly did. It is actually the other way around: if you can afford to buy a couple of cases of Latour every year, you can probably afford to pay for professional storage. It’s the wine drinker of more modest means that gains from a home cellar, as “ordinary” wines are transformed into something elegant, different, and, at times, startling.
It is unfortunate, but I rarely get to see my main cellar these days; it is like I broke up with Greece, and she kept the wines in the divorce. But I’m hooked on laying wine down, wherever I can. I even have a mini wine cellar in my in-laws’ house: a shelf I have occupied in their basement. Their daughter has been equally understanding in letting me invest in a mid-range wine fridge in our apartment. This second wine fridge claims to control humidity - I’ll keep you updated.
Five wine styles that benefit from ageing
The legend of red Bordeaux is built, of course, on its long-lived elite, with top examples from good years approaching their peak two decades in and, I hear, staying in drinking form well into their 40s and 50s. Correspondingly, the prices these fetch nowadays are in millionaire territory. What is often missed in all the first growth talk, however, is the pleasure that can be had from much more reasonably priced examples, for those with appropriate patience. Earlier this year I enjoyed a 2005 Chateau La Garde, which was drinking beautifully and had echoes of a much pricier bottle, sufficiently so that I did not regret at all the £50+ I had to shell out for it. But the 2016 I am now eyeing costs less than half of that en primeur.
Wine people often lament the fact that the general population doesn’t appreciate Riesling enough, which I guess places me squarely amongst the hoi polloi. A Riesling only works for me when it’s at least very good - and has a few years on its back. I am much keener on Alsatian Pinot Gris, but similarly enthusiastic about letting it take a nap in the cellar. The Wine Society stocks the 2015 Réserve bottlings of both Riesling and Pinot Gris from Alsace stalwart Trimbach and, while I agree with them about the longevity of the former, I am almost equally confident about the latter. They say drink until 2021 – I think this is when it will have just reached peak. Not bad for £16 a bottle.
Perhaps it’s the iconic packaging, but often questionable content, of the fiasco in the straw basket that makes many people think that Chianti is to be consumed on the day of purchase. In reality, even mid-priced examples from a good vintage such as 2015 or 2016, tend to deliver best five to six years in. I find Castello di Volpaia, at only £12 from Italvinus, offers good value-for-money. If you want to take a step up, Isole e Olena, Castello di Ama, and Fontodi will start entering peak at 2021, and will all easily go at least a decade – more for Fontodi, a wine built to last.
Practically unique in the world of wine, traditional Rioja winemakers release their wines only when they are considered ready to drink, lest their unaware customers commit vinous infanticide. This is no small feat given that this usually means at least ten years and comes at no negligent cost to the producer. Ready to drink though does not mean peak: you should not think of the releases as maturity, let alone wise old age, but more like young adulthood. Of course it might not surprise you too much that a serious bottle such as La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza can go the distance, but what about something more modestly priced? Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Cubillo is ready now, but I bet it will be even more enjoyable a few years down the line. I have the bottles to prove I’ve taken that punt – it’s not a risky one to take.
As I wrote above, I didn’t start my cellar to age €100 bottles, but €10 ones, most of these being Naoussa Xinomavro. It’s always remarkable how a wine that starts tannic, rigid, and acidic, mellows into a thing of wonder. I am thinking something like Kir-Yianni’s Ramnista, whose 2015 will just start entering peak in 2025 and will probably still be drinking well into its mid-twenties. But it’s impressive what a few years do even to the most ordinary Xinomavro.
On landing in Athens this summer I was served a bottle of Naoussa Boutari at a family dinner, a Greek staple that retails at around 8-9 euros. It was just over the six year mark, having been kept in a storage room where temperatures in the summer would easily reach the high twenties – a far cry from a proper cellar. But it was mellow and fruity and textured: not a bad result for leaving a simple bottle on a shelf and forgetting about it for a few years."
Which wines do you buy with a view to ageing them and what kind of a cellar do you have?
Peter Pharos likes drinking, talking and writing about the wines of Greece and Italy. He also writes a bimonthly column for timatkin.com.
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