I began my wine collection many years ago, and every time I tasted something new that I liked, I’d buy a case. This is when I learned about the importance of a good wine merchant. Someone that you could talk to, who likes what you like and can speak about it knowledgeably without being either a weenie or a cork dork! I lived in a small house in San Francisco that luckily had an old dirt cellar that was uniformly cool (an attribute that we’ll talk more about later). Unfortunately it was also damp and “au naturale” and before I knew it, molds and cute little field mice had chewed through most of the cases and labels making them unrecognizable. I also, in my zeal, had lost track of what I had. Record keeping wasn’t high on my list of priorities then. My wife at the time would just roll her eyes every time the subject of the wine cellar came up. I had to have a “come to Jesus” meeting with myself and answer three big questions:
1. How much wine could I realistically expect to consume before it began to fade?
2. How much could I afford? I unfortunately was becoming a bit addicted and was beginning to collect some impressive trophy wines. As I look back now I’m not sure who exactly I was trying to impress!
3. How much space did I have to properly store the wine and what did it mean to “properly store”?
When you store wine, you need to realize that wine is a “living” thing. Like it or not, from the moment that a wine is bottled there is a gradual, seemingly imperceptible but absolutely inevitable, change in the flavors in the wine. Two bottles filled with the same wine and stored in the same conditions will be different over time. In the beginning the young fruit flavors dominate but over time as these soften and diminish through the action of chemical changes (basically aging of the polymers) and sometimes bacteriological influences. The “loss” of the primary, up-front fruit flavors will usually (but not always) be more than offset by the gain in secondary flavors and characteristics. Even with all the tools that modern science has for analysis such as gas chromatographs or ultraviolet and infrared spectrophotometers, the reasons for the flavors that develop is still not clearly understood.
The whole question of which wines to age and for how long, unfortunately is a bit of a crapshoot. Since none of us have exactly the same preferences and tastes, YOU, in the final analysis, have to be your own judge and jury. This means that you’ll need to monitor the progress of your wine by sampling a bottle or two over time to determine when it hits its peak for you. Obviously this is one of the great reasons to have a cellar! Again, a good merchant can help council you in this process and give you some time ranges to operate within. Usually, (but not always) the best candidates for cellaring are red wines with their tannins and color (mostly anthocyanins). As these slowly change because of the interaction with oxygen introduced at bottling time and also through a “seepage’ through the cork, red wines will soften and gradually change color from deep purple to a brick red or tawny color.
Though reds are usually the best candidates for cellaring it should be noted that some white wines would also age beautifully even though they are much lower in tannin and have no anthocyanins at all. I can remember having old Rieslings from Germany or Vouvrays from France that when young were bright and crisp and over time softened beautifully to flavors of rich butter, toast and sherry. Both ends of their life were wonderful but clearly different. Sort of like all of us, I hope!
Perhaps the most important consideration in the cellaring of wine is an understanding of how the cork works. Since it’s a natural product, (the bark of the cork tree) it will slowly allow a bit of oxygen to makes its way into the wine. Since no two corks are the same and in fact no two necks of the bottle are exactly the same (so the cork will “seat” itself differently) these two things together will allow more or less air or oxygen to meet up with the wine.
One other thing figures in here too. The greater the airspace between the bottom of the cork and the top of the wine (known as the ullage) will also speed up, even if slightly, the oxidation or chemical change in the wine. Over a long time, corks will deteriorate and allow unacceptable amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine. This is why great “museum” wines are routinely recorked after a decade or two. The action of the cork then will have much to do with the successful life of the wine.
It must be noted here that because corks are sometimes not perfect and subject to variation (like all things in nature), a better closure for a wine bottle is actually the screw cap. They are inert, seal better and are nearly perfect as closures. Screw capped wines will still age due to the fact that some oxygen is stored in the wine itself when it is made, but more slowly, which isn’t a bad thing. A number of blind tastings have been held over the years in many parts of the world and the conclusion has invariably been that screw capped wines were fresher and showed no “corky” flavors that sometimes show up in natural corked wines. So why don’t we see more screwcaps? I suspect we will as the quality of cork comes more into question. A lot of the resistance, I think, comes from the fact that a natural cork pulled from the bottle sounds infinitely more romantic than the “pling” of a screw cap!
Given the importance of the cork then, there are at least three related components for an ideal cellar:
1. Constant and Ambient Temperature
Having a constant temperature all year round is actually more important than the degrees. A cellar that varies between 58 and 72 during the day is not nearly as good as one that is consistently 70 degrees. Changes in temperature can become harmful because both the wine and the cork expand and contract allowing a greater exchange of air or oxidation. The rule here is the lower consistent temperature the better, ideally around 56 to 58 degrees.
2. Good Humidity
Humidity in a cellar should be in the 70 percent range. Much lower than this and the cork begins to dry out. In the short term, the end becomes brittle and crumbles when you try to extract it with a corkscrew. Over the long term, with low humidity the cork will actually shrink and lose its elasticity. As a result it becomes an imperfect seal and eventually allows more oxygen in than is desirable. Many wine cellars use air conditioners to maintain temperature. Unfortunately conventional refrigeration units dehumidify the air substantially. It’s why vegetables and cheese dry out so quickly left unwrapped in your refrigerator. It’s important then to also have a humidifier in your cellar if you are using refrigeration in order to maintain cork “health”.
3. Still Air
Though less important than the two conditions above, air movement, especially in cellars with air conditioning units, also can have a tendency to dry out the ends of corks. It should be noted here that any kind of movement of the bottles should be kept to a minimum. You’ll need to be careful not to draw out your prized babies and fondle them too much. Excess movement seems to affect the quality of the wine. This may be the reason that wines tasted near their birthplace don’t taste the same once they’ve been shipped across an ocean.