Are you tired of having bottles scattered around different spaces in your apartment? The wines accumulate disorganized and it is time to “put the house in order”? Do you want to buy wines to have in your home and share with family and friends, but you don’t know how to keep them properly? Or do you simply want to make a wine cellar but don’t know very well where to start? If so, these tips are for you. Let’s do it!
WHAT CARE SHOULD I HAVE ON THE WINE CELLAR?
Most people, especially those who live in big cities, do not have today the ideal conditions to keep wine at home. Also because of that, a little bit around the world, more and more wines from harvest years (which usually correspond to the most recent launches) just bought in a wine cellar, a supermarket or a convenience store… to drink at lunch or dinner that same day, with family or friends.
For those who want to make a wine cellar, living in an apartment or a house can make all the difference. But don’t be discouraged if you think you can’t, or don’t know, keep the wines properly. There are always alternatives.
Under what conditions should I, after all, keep the wine? This is the first obstacle that you will have to overcome, because the wines need a compartment which is not subject to great variations of temperature; which has a low – or even none – sun exposure; which is free of great vibrations; and which has an adequate percentage of humidity (because the humidity prevents the cork stoppers from drying out, losing elasticity and sealing properties). Especially the humidity (in the order of 60 to 70%) and the temperatures (fresh or mild – but above all constant throughout the year) are absolutely fundamental.
Therefore, if you do not have a cellar where you can faithfully reproduce such conditions, you should choose the “least bad” of the compartments that exist in your house for that purpose, privileging the conservation temperature – which should be as stable as possible, without great oscillations or extreme “peaks”, in order to avoid the acceleration or weakening of the biochemical phenomena responsible for the evolution of wine.
Garage, storage or marquee? None of the three places is propitious, but you should opt for what is darker and cooler – never the marquee next to the kitchen (because of heat sources, but also because of smells and sunlight) and much less the storage in the attic of the building, where there is certainly the greatest thermal amplitude of the building. Take into account that the walls facing north are cooler – and that the interior storage rooms, without windows or skylights, ensure better thermal stability and less exposure to light.
HOW TO MAKE A WINE CELLAR?
The wine cellar can be designed from scratch depending on the space available, whether it is a basement area, a small interior storage room or the use of a “dead” space (a stairwell, for example, can be a good alternative – or a space between columns where a “wall-bottle” can be raised).
Nowadays, however, there are interesting shelves in the market for storing wine (for instance, Leroy Merlin or Ikea) at very accessible prices, made of wooden modules that can be attached and grow vertically or horizontally, thus adapting to the type of room and available area. The advantage of these bottles is that we can purchase the modules as the number of bottles in our collection grows.
Whatever the type of wine cellar, take into consideration that the bottles should not be “glued” to the floor or literally against the wall. A safety margin of a few centimeters may be enough to prevent the misfortune of a flood, the bursting of a pipe or simply some excessive infiltration of humidity.
SHOULD I PUT THE BOTTLES VERTICALLY OR HORIZONTALLY?
All wines, of all kinds, have an inexorable ending. But there are some that resist more than others, as it is known: the fortified more than the still wines, the reds more than the whites, the Madeira wines… more than any others. And there are wines with the declared intention of being consumed still young – and others designed by producers and oenologists to be “wines of guard”. Then it is up to the consumers to store the wines properly, otherwise they will have more “vinegars” than wines.
The overwhelming majority of wines must be stored horizontally, as this position of the bottle ensures that the cork remains damp. Being damp, the cork stopper does not contract, not dry, maintains the initial porosity and elasticity, and thus ensures that not too much oxygen enters the bottle – which would cause an early oxidation of the wine, progressive changes in aromas and taste, and a sharp transformation of the wine … into vinegar. This good practice of placing the bottles horizontally should apply, namely, to red wines, white wines, Vintage Port and LBV, sparkling wines and champagnes.
As for wines with an oxidative profile, of which Tawny Port, Colheita Port and Madeira wines are a greater example, the “obligation” to place them horizontally is not so transcendent, as they are used to living with the atmosphere through the porosity of the vats, the barrels and the casks in which they were always until bottling.
An important point to note: wines that have been stored for a long time horizontally and are prone to deposit (unfiltered reds or Vintage Ports, for example) must be placed vertically in advance of the moment of consumption – a few days or even weeks, depending on the time of storage – before being consumed.
HOW TO ORGANIZE THE WINES IN THE CELLAR?
You should arrange the wines according to your consumer profile – and according to your portfolio. For example, if you value the origins of the wine and have mainly Portuguese wines you should organize your cellar by demarcated regions (Alentejo, Douro, Dão, Bairrada, Vinhos Verdes, etc.), reserving a small space for foreign wines. But if you prefer to consume the wines by harvest years, then the demarcated region’s criteria can become subsidiary or complementary – organize your wine cellar by harvest year (or by decades, as you have fewer references to arrange) and, within each period of time, then follow the criterion of wine origin. Another possible tidy criterion is the type of wine: red, white, Port, foreign wines, etc. Then, in each typology, shelf or “wine cellar area”, you can follow other organization criteria such as the regions of origin, vintage years, price of the wine, classifications of that wine, etc. There is a vast world of coordinates to organize the wine cellar: it all depends on you, your criteria, your consumer profile. However, the most frequent is even the criteria of the origin and type of wine – as it is proved by the wine cellars of the points of sale, whether they are houses of specialty, or the spaces for wines of the large commercial surfaces.
WHICH WINES SHOULD I KEEP?
As La Palice, the celebrated French nobleman who is patron of all evidence, would say, a wine cellar should be used to store wines … with storage capacity. But this does not prevent us to reserve a part of our wine cellars for the wines of more immediate consumption, because even these wines deserve to be kept in good conditions of temperature and humidity. Once again helping us from La Palice, we advise that these wines for immediate consumption, which will not be kept for more than a few months, should be kept in an area of the cellar of easier access. For obvious reasons.
And what wines have more interesting aging potential in bottle? The most obvious case is Vintage Ports, which by definition improve in bottle and have a resistance capacity of tens of years. By the way, Vintage Ports are wines deliberately made to grow and age in the confined environment of a bottle, unlike the other great family of Ports, Tawny Ports, which have made all their way in wood (in vats, barrels or casks) and should therefore be drunk preferably on the date closest to their bottling (information which, as a rule, is on the back label).
But beyond the fortified wines, whose greater longevity is soon guaranteed by the component of brandy that interrupted the fermentation process – and that the example of greater “indestructibility” on a planetary scale is even Madeira Wine, also thanks to its peculiar acidity – there are today many wines capable of improving with time in the bottle.
Red wines, thanks to the double combination of tannins and acidity, have at first better conditions to be kept than white wines. But nowadays there are whites that show a remarkable ageing capacity – whites that have earned the right to last in time thanks to the characteristics of the grape varieties that integrate them, but also to the way they have been made (with pelicular maceration, with ageing in wood, with “batonnage” processes, etc.).
As time goes by, in general, wines of all kinds lose their initial characteristics – characteristics that are very centred in the fruit, in the primary aromas, in the grape varieties that gave them origin. Having a wine cellar with diversified wines – red, white, fortified, late harvests, and even some sparkling wines – allows discovering immense possibilities of discovering the seductive world of tertiary aromas, of the aromas that appear with the process of aging in bottle, and of the multiple textures and layers that only time is able to add to wines.
Like people, wines that age lose youth, lose exuberance, lose vigor, lose some expressiveness, lose muscle. But they can gain lots of other fascinating things… that a good domestic wine cellar helps to discover.
If you want to increase your private wine cellar, organize it properly or start doing it now, be more aware of the specialized information that this magazine is a good example. Knowing better the regions and the wines, the producers and the varieties, the harvest years and the consumption intervals is a good way, for sure, to make right choices about the wines you should keep preferably.
AND HOW DO I KNOW WHERE A CERTAIN BOTTLE IS THAT I WANT TO OPEN?
In fact, most bottles “hide” the information about the bottles – information that is concentrated on the respective label and back label. By placing the bottles lying on the alveoli or shelves, desirably with the bottle neck facing out (because it makes handling easier and gives some visibility to the bottle, despite everything), we lose visual access – and immediate – to the data that can reveal us the wines we have stored.
Using paper labels hung on the bottlenecks, as the older ones did, is not a solution; at some point, there are as many labels as bottles… which is dysfunctional, besides being quite unaesthetic.
A first solution is to organize the wine cellar in delimited areas (depending on the type of wine, the regions of origin or harvest years, for example), which facilitates the search at the time of finding a specific wine.
However, as the wine cellar grows, the best is to have a small book of notes where the location of the wines in the cellar is recorded. For this, the shelves or alveoli must have a system of coordinates that correspond to the record in the notebook. A very simple system with horizontal letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, etc.) and vertical numbers (1,2,3,4,5, etc.), so that we can know promptly which wines exist, for example, in the coordinates B6 or G17.
This notebook has another potential advantage: it can evolve into a “winery book”, that is, a book where we make a real inventory of stocks beyond the simple location of the bottles, with references to the producer, grape varieties used, remaining bottles, place and date of purchase, purchase price, small notes and comments, etc. If you prefer, you can opt for the digital version of this record of your cellar in an Excel sheet.
WHAT SERVICE TEMPERATURES SHOULD I CONSIDER?
If you have a cellar at home with a uniform temperature for all wines – which is the most likely and common scenario – pay special attention to the service temperatures when opening a certain bottle of wine. A constant temperature in the order of 14 or 15 degrees centigrade is very interesting and suitable to keep most wines in good condition, regardless of their typology. But if this “room temperature” around 15 degrees centigrade is appropriate to serve red wines, Vintage Port or LBV, the same cannot be said of white wines, Tawny Port and Colheita (which should be served at temperatures ranging between 10 and 14 degrees centigrade) – and much less of Late Harvest and Sparkling or Champagne, which should be served at temperatures between 6 and 8 degrees centigrade.
Therefore, if your particular wine cellar provides a uniform temperature to all wines – which is not serious, because the most important thing is to avoid large thermal amplitudes – do not forget to put in the refrigerator some time in advance the wines that should be consumed at a lower temperature. And if it is necessary to accelerate the cooling process of the bottles, here is a tip proved by the chemistry manuals: in a bucket (aka “frappé”) with water and ice, so that the bottles are immersed up to the neck, throw two or three generous hands of coarse salt inside. The catalytic effect is guaranteed.
MY HOUSE HAS NO MINIMUM CONDITIONS TO MAKE A WINE CELLAR. DO I REALLY HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE?
Yes, nowadays there are alternatives thanks to the development of the market of refrigerators for storing bottles whose portfolio has become more vast and diversified in recent years. This is really the best alternative for those who do not have, in their home or apartment, the minimum storage and air conditioning conditions required for wine storage. You can buy a cold store, for example, at El Corte Inglés or Worten. And you can do it online, with home delivery, which is especially useful and interesting in these pandemic times of confinement. From 100 euros you can already find a wide range of wine coolers, whose price increases according to the number of bottles it holds and the technical characteristics it provides (there are wine coolers only for whites; only for reds; mixed wine coolers, etc.). In addition, these bottles have the advantage of guaranteeing simultaneous control of temperature and humidity.
WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTAL ACCESSORIES OF WINE?
There is no point in having a wine cellar at home if we do not use it. Wine is to be consumed, preferably with family and friends, in a spirit of sharing, rather than to be kept. Even the wine storage should be seen from the perspective of domestic stock management, waiting for the ideal moment of consumption, because there are wines that notoriously gain attributes with the ageing in bottle.
Therefore – and for this – we must have the most important accessories and suitable for wine consumption, starting with appropriate glasses, today of simple (and relatively cheap) purchase in any specialty house, or even in large commercial areas.
Besides the glasses, it is convenient to have a good corkscrew (the classic ones, they are always functional), a vacuum pump (to store wine left over from one day to the next), a wine thermometer (to ensure the proper service temperature), a “decanter” or a simple pitcher (to air the wine, especially the younger wines, which can then be put back in the bottle with the help of a funnel) and a “frappé” or bucket of ice to cool the bottles that need a lower serving temperature (namely white and sparkling wines). Not to mention the precious invention of the Danish Brian Vang Jensen, a “design” prodigy – the anti-droplet blades, also known by his trademark, DropStop.