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A wine cellar is, in the most general sense, a place where you store bottles of wine for the long term. Wine changes over time, and whether it's for the better or the worse depends very much on how it's stored.

The most important part of storing wine is that you must absolutely keep the temperature constant. The lower the temperature, the slower the wine will age. Recommended temperatures are between 45 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not allow the temperature to fluctuate very much. This is more important when using an active coolers (discussed in a moment).

Keep the wine out of the light. Light, in both the optic and ultraviolet range, can damage the wine.

A humidity between 50 and 80 percent is generally acceptable. Too dry of an environment may cause the cork to begin to dry out. Too much humidity may screw up your labels and that's also no good if you like to hang onto those.

Always store the wine lying on its side. This is so the cork will remain wet and continue to make an effective seal with the bottle.

If you live in a place with a basement area with has a constant, cool temperature and humidity, this may afford the best place to store wine. If this area is large enough, you may have room to rack hundreds of bottles. If this is great, more power to you, and I expect to see you getting loaded as often as possible. If this is not the case, or if you're an apartment dweller, you can buy a wine cooler, which is a refrigerator designed specifically to store wine. This is what I have, as my house is built on a slab. Many of these coolers resemble small mini-refrigerators, but use thermoelectric cooling devices so as to cause as little vibration in the wine as possible. These do a fairly good job at regulating the temperature, however it may take a while for the contents to cool off, and opening and closing one too much is not good for the wine. Fill a cooler up with wine, and leave it.

Another important part of cellaring wine is patience, as you might have to wait a little while for the wine you bought to mellow out a bit. Just cellar it, and forget about it for a while. It will still be there when it's time to drink.

I am lucky enough to have a wine cellar. It's not big, but I have installed racks for 200 bottles, with overflow space for another 60 or so. All these are below ground level in an old coal cellar that was dug into the chalk soil of the North Downs when the house was built, just over 100 years ago.

In response to evilkalla (above), the temperature varies from around 12C in the depths of winter to a maximum of 18C for a few days in the height of summer. To get the temperature more constant, it needs to be a bit deeper underground, but it works OK for me. Humidity runs at about 40 - 60 percent. So the corks don't dry. Thing is, half the wines I buy nowadays have screw caps anyway and others have synthetic corks, so the humidity and laying them down on the side isn't so important any more.

 

Why a cellar?

I like to put a nice bottle on the table in the evening, or when friends come round. Unfortunately, my income does not allow me to buy anything too expensive, so I tend to shop close to the bottom end of the market. The ideal wine for me is one that tastes magnificent, but has a no-name label and costs next-to-nothing to buy.

I'm not buying stuff to keep for years on end. I'm buying stuff to drink because it is enjoyable. Out of a couple of hundred bottles in the cellar, the vast majority are ready to drink immediately. Only about a dozen are fancy wines that need another few years before they are ready to drink. Having said, that, most of the wines will improve a bit with a year or two of cellar-age on them, so there is no rush to drink any of it.

We get through about 150 to 200 bottles a year. I budget £50/ month for booze. That works out at something under £4/bottle. So I'm down among the cheap seats where wine is concerned. At that price, I can't afford to be a wine snob.

I use the cellar to store wine for two main reasons. First it is a kind of liquor store at home. As well as wine, I keep beer, spirits and soft drinks down there so that if something unexpected happens, I always have the right drink for the occasion. I have enough different types and styles of wine — and beer — that I can always pick one to match any situation that might arise. An additional benefit is that I can allow a guest to select a wine, if they enjoy that kind of thing.

The second reason is that the cellar gives me space for a buffer stock. I can buy good wines when they come up on special offer, and then store them for drinking months or even years later.

I like my wine. I like entertaining. I like helping people to enjoy a good drink. But my money is limited. So when I see a decent wine being sold at a good price, I buy a case or two. The cellar allows me to store it.

A lot of wine improves with age, so leaving it there in the dark, undisturbed cellar can make the wine better. It probably won't improve the value much, but it might make it taste a bit less harsh. Except for the very few wines that are meant to be drunk young and fresh, it won't deteriorate. So I look for good wines being sold at half price. Getting to the point, although I pay an average of £4 a bottle or less, the wine I put on the table has a retail value closer to £8 per bottle.

I used to average around £3.50 a bottle, but it is getting increasingly hard to find good, drinkable wines below that price, and the cellar has gradually filled up, so now I am allowing myself to spend up to £5/bottle for relatively good stuff, but aiming for good buys at around £4 each. Note, however, that I routinely seek out the half-price bargains, so these are £8 - £10 wines ($15 - 20 at current exchange rates).

I usually buy from on-line supermarkets. This is first because they have the best range of wines in my price bracket. Second, they can do some amazing deals and third, some of them offer loyalty points on purchases that bring the price of the wine down even further. A fourth reason is that there is a greater volume of information available about the wines on sale in large supermarkets.

Perhaps surprisingly, price is not a very reliable determinant of how good a wine will taste. A wine made from well-known grapes grown in a well-known area will sell at a premium price. This means some thin, sour wines from (say) Burgundy will sell at relatively high prices -- well above my self-imposed limit.

By contrast, really good wines from unknown areas, and unusual grapes often sell for remarkably low prices. Because of this, I also check online for independent reviews of the wines I am thinking about buying. If they do not review well, I don't buy. But if the reviews come up as good or exceptional (at full price) then I'll buy a lot of the half-price stock.

It is rare for me to buy less than about 6 bottles of any wine. For some fancy wines meant for laying down, I can rarely afford more than one or two bottles as a luxury or as a birthday treat. But for the everyday stuff, I buy either 6, 12, 18 or 24 bottles, depending on how good a deal I am getting. I'm prepared to experiment, so if there's something that looks like it might be good, and not enough on-line opinions to make a firm decision, I'll buy 6 and immediately taste one. If it's good, I'll get some more. If it's not so good, I can use the other five for cooking, or for giving away or perhaps drink it on one of those evenings when the taste of the wine is less important than other factors. I've currently got about a dozen of these duffers in the cellar. Maybe they'll improve with age....

Although there are many supermarkets with specialised wine stores, I tend to use the UK's Tesco online store to buy my wine. First, they have a good range of wines in my price bracket. Second, they frequently run special offers. Third, they do free delivery (on orders of £100 or more). And fourth, their loyalty point scheme is exceptional. They frequently offer £20- to £40-worth of points on a £100 order.

This approach means I am limited to their special offers. But with the decent storage capacity offered by the cellar, I can wait until the wines I want are on special offer, and then stock up, buying a year's worth of that particular style of wine.

 

Practicalities of running a cellar

Over the five years or so that I've been running the cellar, I've learned a few tricks. Apart from the obvious classification by style of wine, I also divide my stock into those where I have multiple bottles of the same wine, those with just a couple of bottles, and the single bottles.

This mix changes over time. I'm going to illustrate this by referring to how my stocks of fizz have changed over the last couple of years. A while back I bought 12 bottles of a New Zealand fizz: a premium wine from the Lindauer stable. When I bought it, it was pleasant enough and every now and then we'd open a bottle or two (or three) if the occasion seemed to demand it. So the stocks went down to just three bottles.

When we were in France a couple of years ago I knew we were going to have a celebration later in the year, so I specifically went to a tasting at a chateau, intending to buy a dozen bottles of an easy-to-drink champagne look-alike to serve at the party. Quite separately, I bought a bottle of ridiculously cheap local fizz from a supermarket as an experiment. That was amazingly good, so I bought their entire stock — only about nine bottles — and transported that back home as well.

In the following months we got through almost all the cheapo stuff (and it tasted just as good at home as it had done in France) as well as most of the champagne look-alike. The Lindauer by now is simply amazing, with a lovely, delicate flavour, a beautiful pink-gold colour and masses of very fine bubbles. It has become a truly wonderful wine after about three years in the cellar.

Meanwhile for New Year's Eve we had some friends round and I bought half a dozen bottles of fizzy red wine (an Australian shiraz). it was fun opening those and pouring red stuff from a champagne bottle, but we got through five of those that evening.

So now I am left with a couple of bottles of the Lindauer, a single bottle of the cheapo fizz and a couple of the methode Champenoise from the Loire as well as a single bottle of red fizz. Also, some friends bought a couple of bottles of real champage as gifts, so I have those stored away as well.

If we have friends round, I want to be able to offer them the same wine throughout, so I need three or four bottles of the same. So although I have half a dozen bottles of varied fizz, I had to buy another half dozen to ensure I have the option to continue with the same wine for the whole evening when we have guests around.

However, the left-overs need to be drunk at some point, and that will be up to AspieMum and myself on a warm summer's evening or a cold winter, or one night when we feel like celebrating.

So it is with every style of wine. I start off with a lot of the same, and as we use it with guests, the bottles reduce down to pairs or singles. If we have a single guest, then I can use a pair, but with the singles, AspieMum and I usually have to drink it between us. This is no real hardship, as you can imagine.

I don't keep tasting notes on any wines I drink, but I do try to remember any that are particularly good ad look out for the same producer or vineyard again.

 

What's in the cellar right now?

I aim to have at least six to twelve months' supply of any given style of wine. When it starts to run low, I then have a few months to look out for special offers on that particular style.

Aside from fizz and a dozen or so half-bottles of dessert wine, the cellar tends to divide about 3:1 between red and white wines. I might also have a dozen or so bottles of rose (blush) wine sitting around, especially in Spring and Summer.

AspieMum and I tend to drink white wines either with very light food or on its own, so we tend to look for: something fairly light and refreshing. We usually have a couple of dozen bottles of new world chardonnay handy, as well as a half a dozen or so of Sauvignon blanc — often from New Zealand — and maybe the same of pinot grigio, or a cheap, dry white from Italy or southern France. I'll usually have a couple of bottles each of riesling, gewurtztraminer and maybe a few other styles as well, but I rarely drink these, so it's a bit hit or miss whether I have stocks of those or not.

In reds, there's a much wider range of styles and types to go with different types of food. I have a few bottles of decent French wine: Chateau-bottled stuff from St Emilion, Paulliac and other parts of Bordeaux. If we start to run low on those I wait until I am in France,and go to a tasting at a French wine merchant to stock up on decent claret. French wines can be so variable that it is usually a good idea to taste before buying too much.

I can't afford decent Burgundy, which is a shame, as I like it a lot, but a Pinot noir varietal grown in Chile or Australia makes a decent (and much cheaper) alternative. Whenever I see anything like that on special offer I try to buy it.

Rioja (from Spain) went out of fashion a few years ago, but it can be superb wine. The modern producers are making much lighter wines that can be drunk on their own or with food, and the Tempranillo grape leads to flavours that can be can be simply wonderful -- especially if aged for a few yers in oak barrels. Because they are out of fashion, they are also relatively cheap.

I'm buying a lot more South African wines now. Quality is much higher than it was, but prices are still relatively low as producers there try to break into the international market. Also, the grape varietals are not as well known as Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon, so they have less shelf-appeal. I'm buying a lot of Pinotage for barbecues and big roast meats.

Australian wines tend to be big and flavoursome thanks to the constant sunshine. They are dominated by mega corporations like Rosemount, Penfolds, each of which promotes many different brand names. Although a lot of wine snobs decry the dominance of these large companies, it does mean that means there are quite often good deals from these corporations,as they try to build brand-loyalty among an under-educated public.

The key point about these mass-market Australian wines is that they are always reliable and usually big on flavour.

The vintners and blenders try to keep the same style from year to year, in order to keep their customers happy, so the vintage is much less important with Australians than some other countries. Interestingly, the Australians are experimenting with some of the lesser-known European varietals, and these can be excellent alternatives to their European counterparts: Rosemount Sangiovese, for example is a perfectly acceptable alternative to Chianti. Italian Chiantis can be over-heavy, badly made and lacking in character, but the Australians use modern techniques to make them well and the results show through in the flavour.

French wines (in the low- to mid-price bracket) are coming back, after being over-priced and poorly made. I tend to go for the wine areas adjacent to the big-name wines where the style is similar, but the prices are much lower. Instead of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, try the less-well-known Gigondas, or even (if you can find it) Lirac, which is a new AoC, and lies just across the valley.

Italy produces some unbelievably wonderful wines, but you have to live there to get access to them, and you have to know the producers personally. I neither live there, nor do I know the producers well enough, but I have been fortunate to dine in restaurants where the owner/sommelier knows some outstanding Italian wines. Because of this, I have very few italian wines in the cellar. Maybe some pinot grigio from the Veneto or Alto Adige area. Unfortunately Italian reds are a bit too variable and patchy for me, so the only bottles I have are gifts from friends.

At the moment, the cellar is pretty full. I'm just above my nominal limit of 200 bottles, having bought in 30 bottles of a lovely, fresh Sicilian white, which is just right for drinking on a summer's evening, and another couple of dozen rose wines, which also work well on a summer's day.

A wine for all occasions

Twelve bottles make a wine cellar: three top-tier wines, three white specialist wines, three ethnic red wines, and three American wines. With these on their sides in a cool closet away from the washing machine, you'll have a wine for every meal.

 

  • Champagne You already know when to drink this: New Year's, birthdays, you feel great, you feel low. It's traditionally paired with dessert or caviar, but you might want to serve it with something buttery or in a cream sauce. Just saying.
  • Bordeaux When you need a red wine to go with your prime rib, or celebratory steak, or even when you make Grandma's special brisket in her special pot. This is Wine with a capital W, the kind you buy to drink years later. That said, you can find good 'starter' Bordeaux for about $25.
  • Dessert wine You don't think you need this, but you do. When you've given your guests a great meal, and just when everyone thinks they've gotten royally feasted...pull this out. My favorite pick is Canadian Ice Wine...looks and tastes like something drunk by Elven Royalty. Also...Canada? If you crave tradition instead of mind-blowing (hey, it could happen), Sauternes. Dessert wine is emphatically not cheap, and often comes in weird bitty bottles, but it keeps forever, and your guests will remember the night almost as long.
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    Three Specialist Whites

  • Muscadet Your go-to fish wine. I'm not a big fish eater, but this will do the trick. Also, I'd hazard, a good pairing for all that Japanese food that you don't drink sake with.
  • Gewurztraminer Spicy and peppery, this is your pork/charcuterie wine. Also great for Chinese food, and some Indian and Thai (though the 'wine' that goes best with curry is beer, IPA, to be exact.)
  • Riesling It used to be said that Riesling (under the label of Blue Nun) went with any dish. Sharing some of the same flavors of Coca-cola (I'm saying this 'cause I like cola), I would, if I were inclined, drink this with almost anything back a few years when German wine was cheap, cheap, cheap (I liked it with chicken, best). Now that it's more expensive, and I a little more sophisticated, I'm more likely to drink it by itself, or with a few nibbles as a 'cocktail' wine....like Steely Dan, still good...or better!
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    Three country wines

     

  • Rioja What you drink with Mexican food. Or Spanish food. Or...Puerto Rican food. Or maybe even Brazilian food. Also makes fine Sangria, if that's your pleasure.
  • Beaujolais Forget all that flummery about Beaujolais Nouveau: if it's not yet November 15th or much past January of the following year it's as worthless as thin asparagus...it's sold as premium, but it's actually past its peak. Get some regular old Beaujolais Villages, it'll be fine with your Sunday chicken, your casserole, your tenderloin tips in brown sauce...your basic French wine.
  • Good cheap Italian red Pasta, pizza, you get the general idea. If it's Italian, and not a Major Meal, this is a no-brainer. Barolo, Valpolicella, the Chianti that makes great candleholders. Try a different one every time...you might be surprised.
  • Three American wines

     

  • Chardonnay Another 'cocktail' white, maybe overplayed these days...but great to have on hand. Chateau Magdelena Chard was the white wine in the movie "Bottle Shock" that won the controversial "Judgment of Paris" in 1976, when American wine won a taste-off against comparative French wine.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon The American answer to Beaujolais, and the red (Stag's Leap) you saw in "Bottle Shock", eating up the French competition. The wine of a thousand uses, a good all-round red.
  • Zinfindel A big brawny red, for all your hamburger/gamy/"what do I serve with this?" needs. I wouldn't serve a Thanksgiving turkey with anything else (though one T'giving was spent in a hospital where we all drank sparkling cider). This is also my favorite 'wine for people who don't drink wine' (who are inevitably amazed that zin comes in any color other than 'blush'), since it tastes like what the common folks drink in that mythical kingdom where the upper crust drinks ice wine. Also a great snack wine, it positively screams for some bread or cheese (some people call it "peanut butter wine") to tame it, yet it more than rewards with its straight-on appeal. You can, of course, keep some blush around for your blush-loving friends...if you must. Isn't America great?

How to, and how to branch out

As for actually buying all of this, your best option is to find a good local wine shop, look bewildered and hand them this list. Now, in some cases, that's more easily said than done: now that wine is cool, you'll see a lot of places that are wine boutiques, where the sales staff is young and cute and the prices are uniformly steep. Don't be fooled. Pretty young things are unlikely to have done that much drinking, much less have developed any kind of palate, and very likely to have been told to sell anyone coming in the most expensive bottle in the shop. On the other hand, there are plenty of places where I've asked for Gewurtztraminer, Muscadet, or even Beaujolais Villages (NOT Nouveau) and gotten a blank stare. Look for a mellow, kind of dusty shop where the owner has a little grey in his beard and has a good range of stock. Explain what you're doing: you might even get a discount.

The best advice I ever got from anyone who sold wine was to buy a variety you'd never tried before every time you buy wine, for about two years, paying no more than $15 every time.

This gets you off your duff, I tell you. It's sort of like listening to a good classical station: on the outside, you wonder how you're going to keep awake, and then, you find yourself in Wonderland. Try Merlot, try Pinot Noir,try Mateus, try them all! Then, of the varieties you like, you can always get specialized, or collect rarities. There are wines from Africa within spitting distance of lion country, wines from every state of the nation, wines blended from a hundred grape varieties, wines with masterwork art on the label, wine that...you're sure to absolutely love.

Bon appetit!

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