Cellaring Wine

On The Grapevine, March 2012

Bro Mike , Wine Correspondant

Why cellar wine?

Perhaps it all has something to do with the fact that wine is a living thing and constantly changes with age. That's probably why quite a lot of (but not all) wine tastes better, even with only as little as 6-12 months in the cellar, to take the edge of the various components that make up a wine. The aromas, complexity and taste of a wine invariably will take on new and different dimensions with time.

But just as important in my view is that there is nothing better than being engulfed in one's own wine cellar surrounded by your own treasured bottles of wine. It can be an absolutely soothing and therapeutic feeling just walking into your wine cellar being surrounded by that wine you have cherished over time (that's as long as you don't use every opportunity as an excuse to crack a bottle or two open whilst you are being soothed).

There is also the pleasure, pride and satisfaction of playing host at dinner or other special occasions and being able to pull out a range of aged vintage wines, taking out their corks (or unscrewing the cap) and having the magic of age that has worked the wine ready to share with your friends.

The most important factor affecting the ageing of wine is the conditions in which it is stored.

Ideal temperature for cellaring wine

Storing wines at the ideal temperature can have a significant impact on the life of a wine. Extreme heat is wine’s enemy and can cause a wine to age prematurely and oxidise. The ideal temperature for cellaring wine is around 12 – 16ºC, though chances are few of us have place in our home that is this cool all year round. unless you can afford an underground cellar. One option is to invest in refrigerated wine storage cabinets that can maintain this ideal temperature for cellaring wine. The commercial wine storage companies can also achieve this cellaring temperature consistently for a low monthly rental fee. Otherwise, find the coolest place in your home that will keep the wine anywhere from 8 – 20ºC. That may mean in a special cupboard or perhaps a dark corner of the garage. Find a spot with minimum fluctuation in temperature, from day to day and season to season, away from direct sunlight, or appliances like a fridge or oven. A constant temperature is the most critical factor in cellaring wine. Extremes of temperature can cause rapid maturation and/or spoilage of wine, especially where extremes of heat are concerned. A few minutes in a hot car at 45C can cause a wine to mature rapidly; an hour would spoil it totally. Fluctuations in temperature increase the rate of ageing reactions in the wine, and if sealed with a cork closure, will place pressure on the cork due to the repeated expansion/contraction of the wine inside the bottle. Light can also increase the rate of ageing in wine, and can spoil it over time. This is particularly applicable to UV light, and therefore it is best to store wine in a dark place.

Storage conditions

The ideal storage conditions for cellaring wine will ensure that it ages gradually without spoilage. The perfect storage conditions for a wine call for humidity of 70%. Storage conditions which are too damp can cause mould and for the labels to deteriorate, whereas being too dry can affect the corks. Avoid storage conditions that expose the wine to strong odours, so keep away from paints, solvents and pungent cleaning products. Such odours can seep through the cork and affect the flavour of the wine. Also keep away from storage conditions that subject the wine to vibration, like under a stairwell or beside an appliance like a fridge. Bottles sealed with cork must be stored on their side so that the cork remains moist, stopping air from entering the wine, which causes it to become oxidised. Storage in very dry areas (eg, air-conditioning) can also cause more rapid drying of the cork. Place the bottles in a rack. If you don’t have one, a cardboard carton can be just as good as the corrugated cardboard provides a limited form of insulation from temperature fluctuations. Otherwise simply stacking the bottles on top of each other is fine, though it can make accessing a particular bottle more difficult. Bottles sealed with screw caps or Vino-Lok closures can be stored upright.

What happens as wines age?

Provided wines are given the right storage conditions as they age, a number of positive things can happen. The flavours develop and mature, the tannins soften and the colour changes. Yet some wines actually deteriorate losing the charm and fruit flavours they had when young.

A revolution started by Napoleon

Louis Pasteur was the first scientist to study what happens as wines age. At the time, Napoleon wanted to know why wines were deteriorating on their way to market, so he asked Louis Pasteur for some answers. Pasteur investigated the effects of air contact as wines age; too much oxygen exposure oxidised the wine leading to the growth of vinegar bacteria. However, a little air contact actually improved the wine. He then discovered that by sealing the bottle more effectively, wines last longer.

Showing their age

The higher quality wines age better than inferior ones because they have more acids, sugars, tannins, minerals, pigments, esters and aldehydes. As wines age, tannin levels diminish and acid levels reduce. In terms of flavour, different wines age in different ways. For instance with a cabernet sauvignon, the gripping effect of the tannin diminishes, the fruit flavours increase while the oak integrates with the wine and balances with the fruit flavours. As wines age, ‘secondary’ flavours emerge like toast, toffee, cashew and bacon, in addition to a maturing of the rich berry flavours. Chardonnays tend to develop flavours like caramel, butterscotch vanilla and cashews, while the acids diminish and oak flavours become less dominant. Not all wines age and improve. Many wines today, even some reds, are made for immediate drinking. Wines like sauvignon blancs and rosés are best enjoyed in their youth when their zesty fruit flavours are at their peak. Yet most other wines age and improve, even for just a few months after purchase. Truly great wines age and continue to improve over many years, some for many decades.

Other changes

In addition as wines age, the colour changes. Reds change from a vibrant deep burgundy or crimson colour to a lighter brick red. Whites darken moving from pale yellow and green hues to deeper golden tones, while chardonnays and botrytis-affected semillons move towards dark honey and toffee colours. The closure affects the way wines age. Corks allow more air to enter the bottle than screwcaps.

Selecting Wine For Cellaring

Having got to the stage where you now have a cellar with the type of racking you desire, the fun part now begins with the selection of the wines for aging. Alternately, contact a reputable wine merchant and start to develop a relationship with them so that they can better understand what your tastes (and budget) are so they can guide you with your purchase.

Here is a quick rundown about what wine types and styles to broadly consider when cellaring. My advice is to buy lots of 3-6 bottles of each wine. This is so you can open successive bottles over time and assess how the wine is evolving.

Having said this, the days of buying a case of one type of wine are well and truly over in light of the sheer variety of choice in good quality wine today.

The principles for selecting suitable types of wines for cellaring are just that, as there will always be exceptions and sometimes these are the wines that set your palate on edge or will bitterly disappoint. Not all wine is meant to be cellared, indeed quite a fair bit of it is not meant to be. Please bear in mind that a mediocre wine will never improve dramatically through cellaring.

Think about your wine tastes now but also take into account that your tastes in wine will evolve over time and what you cellar today may not be what you want to drink tomorrow.

Overview Of Varietals For Cellaring

Here are some varietals and Australian regions you should look at when choosing wine for cellaring:

  • Riesling - Eden and Clare Valleys in SA, Canberra and Tasmania.

  • Chardonnay - Margaret River in WA, Beechworth and the Yarra Valley in Victoria and Hunter Valley in NSW and the Adelaide Hills in SA.

  • Semillon - Hunter Valley or the Barossa Valley in SA.

  • Shiraz - McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley or Heathcote, Grampian/Pyrenees and Bendigo in Victoria.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon - Coonawarra in SA, Margaret River or the Yarra Valley.

  • Pinot Noir - Yarra Valley, Geelong or Mornington Peninsula in Victoria

Drinking Windows For Cellared Wine

Now that your wine is safely tucked into the cellar you still need to keep a check about what is there and when it should start to be drunk. This will avoid you finding a bottle that is past its best as there is nothing worse than opening a bottle of one of your finest to find it is well past its optimum date (normally at about the same time you are out to impress someone with that special bottle).

For keeping track of what you have got in your new cellar you can use a cellar book, tags on the neck of the wines, a variety of software packages or create a spreadsheet of your own.

Get into the habit of making tasting notes for each wine you open however basic you think those notes might be and keep opening bottles and reviewing your notes so that you can work out for yourself when your wine will reach its peak and more so when it is on the decline.

Peak drinking window periods differ dramatically depending on the vintage of the wine and the cellaring conditions the wine has been subjected to, so monitoring them yourself is a necessity (and, anyway it gives you an excuse to spend some soothing time in the cellar). If you've bought more than one bottle, then wait 6-12 months, then try it and assess it again as this will give you an idea of when to next try it.

But remember the golden rule that it's always better to open a bottle too early than too late.

There are a many well written wine guide books available in Australia which give estimates to the expected life of many wines or else contact the winery for their advice.

At the end of the day, it's your opinion, not anyone else's that matters (and so it should be!).So congratulations, now that you are well on the journey towards enjoying the fruits of your new cellar as well as the joy it will bring you for many years to come.