Building up a cellar of wine for future enjoyment is one of the great pleasures for wine lovers. But how do you achieve a perfect balance of different styles of wine which will mature at the right time? Wine writer, author and long-time Wine Society member, Steven Spurrier shares his thoughts on the subject.
A Dutch wine merchant once told me that a perfect cellar would have the right wine for every occasion, every meal, every mood. A balanced cellar might not be so ambitious and since my mantra is 'drink for mood not for food', the breadth in my own cellar is limited to less than a dozen different styles of wine. A balanced cellar should offer a good mix of flavours alongside a good spread of drinking dates, the whole being in constant mutation as bottles are drunk and new bottles are purchased. Moreover, a balanced cellar should suit the preferences and needs of its owner, which are bound to change over the years.
One has to start, of course, with a space that can be called a cellar. I am fortunate to have a 'proper' cellar in Dorset, but failing this, space can be made to accommodate wines, the keys being a low temperature, darkness and stillness, with a certain amount of humidity permitted. An American client of mine from my Paris days built up a nice collection, taking it with him when he returned to New York, installing it in a range of temperaturecontrolled cupboards in the bedroom of his apartment. His wife subsequently left him and moved to Florida. Cellar conditions are for wine, not for humans.
Received wisdom is that cellar temperature should be a constant 12°C or 54°F. Today (October 24th) my cellar is 10°C and will descend slowly to 6°C by January, rising to 16°C by August. I feel that such variation suits the wines, as a constant temperature cannot be natural. A cold cellar will slow down maturation and a warmer cellar speed it up, affecting drinking dates to a large degree. Given a suitable place to store your wine, the questions remain what to buy and when to drink it? It is simpler to start with what NOT to buy for the cellar.
This will be determined by what the drinking pattern is, but if 'cellaring' means 'keeping', then this excludes light whites, light reds, rosés and most sparkling wines. Wines that do not improve with age are seasonal and should be bought when needed in the quantities required. Maturation exchanges freshness for potential complexity, so only wines with such potential should be cellared and such wines actually have to be cellared to show their best. 'Best' is in the eye of the beholder, the French preferring their wines young while the British revere age. One of the joys of a cellar is to see wines develop, so perhaps the first three bottles of a case might be opened a bit early, the next six around their best and the final three fading but still good. Knowing the drinking dates is vital for a balanced cellar.
An important question is whether the cellar is to be conservative (tried and trusted) or experimental (new and different.) Preferably a mix of both, but more usually the former. Baron Eric de Rothschild once suggested to me that I come and taste his 'exotics', referring to all the wines in his empire that were produced outside Bordeaux. My own cellar is very conservative, 95% Old World and well over 50% Claret and Vintage Port. I have been selling a little recently, clearing space for new and different wines, for the truth is you can only drink what is in your cellar and if I keep on buying the same sort of wines, this is what I will have to drink. As a wine writer, I get to taste 'exotics' every day of the week, so my weekend drinking from the cellar is conservative, but laying down some New World wines is the plan for the future.
So what should one lay down? Good non-vintage Champagne is a surprising winner. Every other year I buy a case of non-vintage Pol Roger or Louis Roederer to give them two or more years of bottle age before opening, with almost vintage results. Riesling, with its high natural acidity, is a natural, whether from Germany's Mosel or Australia's Clare Valley. Chardonnay, a year or two for the minor wines, five to ten for the 1er Cru Burgundies, more for the Grands Crus, while an increasing number of New World chardonnays improve with age. Sauvignon blanc, not really; sauvignon-semillon, perhaps; semillon, definitely. Pinot gris/grigio, roussanne, marsanne, and especially viognier I prefer young, but verdelho/verdejo can improve.
For reds, the Bordeaux grapes – cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot and malbec (and now Chile's carmenère) – need to age. The Rhône varieties – syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and the southern carignan – are exuberant when young, but their natural robust warmth keeps them going for a decade or more. Burgundy's pinot noir, now successful wherever it can find a cool climate, is attractive young as the tannins are rarely rough, but ages to perfection as the fruit just fades, rather than drying out. Tempranillo, sangiovese, nebbiolo, even zinfandel (particularly from old vines) repay time in bottle. And if you thought that gamay should be drunk young, just invest, as I have, in some of The Wine Society's 2009 Crus Beaujolais. There are very few red wines of character that do not show more character from the cellar.
Today, many of these wines to lay down are sold in cases of six, which is a godsend for people, like me, who like variety within a region.
Most wine drinkers, once bitten by the cellar bug, end up with too much wine, so occasional thinning out is necessary. If you are buying to make a profit, buy only the best from the best vintages. If you are buying to drink, follow top producers in lesser vintages, lesser producers in major vintages to get the best value. Whatever the aim, a cellar is an investment, but the latter is an investment in pleasure.
Steven Spurrier is the director of The Christie's Wine Course which he founded and consultant editor to Decanter magazine. He is the author of several books on wine and is regularly asked to judge at wine competitions around the world. He has been a member of The Wine Society since 1962.