Make sure you have an assortment for different occasions
There's nothing so romantic as the notion of following the cellar-master by candlelight down a dark set of stairs into the cool earth and gazing on rows and rows of dust-covered bottles resting on their side. In the centre of the room, a simple wooden table, a couple of benches and some wine glasses. It invites fantasies of opening long-aged wines and enjoying discoveries only bottle-aged wine can produce.
Of course many houses now don't even have basements, let alone stone steps down into the cool earth. That doesn't mean you can't capture some of that romance, even in a city apartment.
Why bother starting a cellar? Studies show that most wine is stored exactly 20 minutes between the store and the cork-screw. And most lower-acid, high-oak, fruit-forward wines are built to be enjoyed right now, not aged. But once you've experienced what some bottle-aging does to finish a wine, you'll be hooked on the magic of the cellar.
First find a spot. There are two basic guidelines: the cooler the better, and stable temperature is best. Stay out of the kitchen because the heat from the stove will make the temperature very unstable. (Those grids in your kitchen cupboards that cabinet makers install should be torn out. And definitely don't use the wrought-iron racks everyone wants to put in their dining room. Wrong place!) If you have a basement set yourself up against the concrete foundation as far from the furnace as you can. If you have no basement a cool cupboard will do. Set up close to the floor as the temperature will be coolest there. If you like to sleep in a cool bedroom then probably in the bottom of the closet right next to your shoes is a pretty good place.
You don't need any fancy shelving. In fact bricks and boards work fine. Just set up some shelves where you can lay three or four dozen bottles on their side.
Why on their side? To keep the corks damp and swollen in the bottle neck. If the corks dry out too much air will get into the bottle and cause the wine to oxidize over time which is not good. If you want you can buy one of those expensive wine coolers, but for my money they're not really necessary. Maybe if you're storing $2000 bottles of Chateau Margaux, but not for the $15 to $50 bottles you'll be collecting.
How do you go about stocking your new cellar? First decide how much red and white you want to store. Most people only think about aging reds, but several white wines are definitely worth laying down. Dry Rieslings age very well, with the distinctive racy acidity of Riesling both preserving and softening the wine. Rieslings are some of the longest lived wines in the world. And oaked whites also respond well to aging. I for one wouldn't waste cellar space on an oaked Chardonnay. But that's me.
Mostly, however, you'll be aging reds. These wines are built for aging with structured tannins softening and allowing the fruit flavours to mature. The very slow and gradual introduction of air into the wine through the cork causes the wine to slowly oxidize. Not the bad type of oxidization that happens after the bottle is open, but the good type of slow exposure to air that happens when wine is aged in barrels.
When you choose wines for aging make sure they're wines that will benefit from aging. Ask your friendly knowledgable clerk at your favourite wine store to recommend a few labels. They needn't be expensive but they should have sturdy tannins and rich, deep flavours. Take a bottle home and, when you serve it, decant it. Taste it immediately, then in one hour, then two hours, and so on. If the wine gets noticeably better, if it "opens" as it breathes, then you got a winner. Head back to the store and buy three more. That way as you open them over the coming months you'll be able to experience how they change over time. Now repeat the exercise above several times until you have three or four dozen bottles stashed away.
The key to keeping a cellar is to make sure you keep it supplied. You're not always going to want to drink from the cellar. Lots of wines--fresh whites, lighter reds--don't need cellaring. Other lower cost wines can be consumed the night you bring them home. But if you're not nurturing a small number of coveted bottles to be brought out when your wine friends drop over, you're missing one of the great thrills of wine drinking.
Keith Watt is owner/winemaker at Morning Bay Vineyard & Estate Winery on Pender Island, BC