A cellar may be humble or grand, large or small. But if it is to qualify for name, it must achieve three things. It should be dark, it should be free of vibration and, above all else, and it should reduce both daily and seasonal temperature variations to a minimum.
Ideal Cellar Conditions
The siting, or placement, of your wine cellar within your home is your first major decision. There are four components of ideal cellar conditions: an absolutely constant temperature, varying between neither day and night nor summer and winter; substantial humidity; a very cold mean temperature; and the absence of air movement (let alone any movement of the bottles). The first two factors are of major importance; the third is important but needs to be taken in context, while the last is of least importance, but needs to be mentioned.
Consistency of temperature is more important than the degree of temperature. Temperature variations is harmful because it leads to the expansion and contraction of the wine in the bottle, hastening the ingress of oxygen – and thereby oxidation.
Ullage is the air space present in a bottle of wine between the cork and the surface of the wine. In old wines it is fairly reliable indication of likely quality: the greater the ullage the more suspect the wine. Excessive ullage indicates a loose cork, widely or frequently fluctuating storage temperatures, or low humidity (Gold 31). Some ullage with age is inevitable, but anything more that 12 mm (1/2 inch) per decade is avoidable.
Excessively high relative humidity inevitably leads to mold. The carbohydrates in your wine cellar: cork stoppers, paper labels, paper surface of the drywall, and wooden shelves can all become mold food (Alexander).
Wines: Best Kept in the Dark
When no one is in the cellar, it should be kept in pitch darkness. Fluorescent or other forms of electric light have little or no effect over short, intermittent periods. Light-bodied white wines and champagnes are far more sensitive to light than are red wines, and special care should be taken to protect these (Bramhall).
The serious cellar should be just that: a cellar. It should not be a general entertaining or show-off area for a large number of people to congregate in. Firstly, the very presence of a dozen or so guests will significantly increase the circulating air temperature; and secondly; the temptation to pick up and fondle the prized bottles of the cellar is almost irresistible. “On the other hand, the presence of the proprietor alone has a markedly soothing effect both on the proprietor and, the wines.” (Rizzo)
Inhabitants of the Cellar
A large cellar (more than 200 bottles) should be inspected carefully at least once a month, as nature is equipped with a disturbing attack of vandals. The cork moth is a more commonly encountered pest, which can threaten an entire cellar (Rizzo). The cork moth is like any other moth. Its presence is usually indicated by fine, wispy strands of excrete hanging from the end of the bottle, just like that of a woodborer. Small borer like holes may be seen in the corks if the capsules are removed. The only answer to get rid of them is to hang pest-strips permanently until all signs of activity cease.
Wine stored in cardboard cartons is subject to silverfish activity (Rizzo).
(Silverfish – cardboard eating bug) One might think that the silverfish would confine their attentions to the cardboard containers, but quite evidently the labels offer a change of diet. The common chemical methods (insect sprays, and so on) usually bring a speedy end to such an invasion once it is noticed ( Rizzo).
Rats can find their way in and proceed to chew through lead capsules, seeking the glue and/or minute residues of dried wine for food ( Rizzo). There is no damage to the wine itself, but the appearance of many old treasures is irrevocably impaired. Keep traps around the wine racks to avoid this from happening and remember to make periodic inspections.
Ideal Storage Temperature
The one requisite that has general consensus among wine authorities is that the ideal storage temperature is 55| F (13| C). The permissible deviation from this standard runs to anything between 40 and 75| F (4 and 24| C) is acceptable if you’ll be drinking the wine within 20 years (Bramhall). Others stipulate a narrower range of 45 to 65| F (7 to 18| C), or an even more stringent 50 to 59| F (10 to 15| C) (Bramhall). Within these ranges one is advised to avoid rapid or frequent temperature fluctuation, but a single annual temperature fluctuation between the permitted extremes is said to be either of no concern or preferred for ideal maturation (Bramhall).
Connoisseurs of wine who adhere to the constant temperature school install air conditioning or purchase factory assembled refrigerated chambers (Gold 15). If such a cellar is not well insulated, then a single midsummer mechanical or electrical failure could endanger the entire collection. Others are willing to accept , or even prefer, the modest annual temperature fluctuation found in a well-insulated passive (no air conditioner) home cellar.
Building the Cellar
Since the size of the cellar implies a fairly serious commitment to wine collecting, you must be confident about its location in terms of relative coolness, quiet and security. This means a basement, preferably a belowground basement away from heat ducts, water heaters, and the like. The goal in designing a passive wine cellar is to approach the constant conditions found at great depth without expense, technical complexity, and ground water problems of 20-foot depth. The northeast corner of your basement is the best guard against nature because of where the sun rises and sets.
The cellar design calls for straightforward stud wall construction tied to existing overhead floor joists and the concrete floor. Double 2 x 6-in. pressure treated wood with R40 or better insulation inside all walls (Alexander). You can never over insulate. The ceiling needs R40 insulation also. The interior wine cellar walls, those that face the rest of the basement, require a vapor barrier.
This is because the basement, lacking a perimeter vapor barrier, and being warmer, will at times have a higher absolute humidity than the wine cellar (Alexander). Dupont Tyvek can be used as the vapor barrier. This is used in home construction. It will stop moisture from coming and going. Unless you want to raise your cellar temperature, place no insulating material like rugs, plastic, wooden flooring, wooden bin floors, cardboard or wooden boxes directly on the floor, and never place insulation beneath the floor.
When the basement is moist, wine cellar door openings should be brief and infrequent. The door, being part of the interior wall, requires a vapor barrier and R40 or better insulation. Do not forget to seal the sill. An adhesive is applied with a caulking gun to the concrete floor beneath the sill. For the walls and ceiling use green board, which is moisture resistant. Paint your dry wall or it will mildew (Alexander). Mildew-resistant latex paints designed for damp locations such as bathrooms are available and are recommended. A brief description of wall construction was intended to specify only what is recommended for a wine cellar construction. For a fully illustrated do-it-yourself guide to stud wall construction visit your lumberyard or bookstore.
Lighting should consist of fluorescent lights because they give off only 1/5 as much heat as incandescent (Alexander). Now for the bins, most everyone builds wooden bins, ideally with redwood or cedar, which resist mold (Alexander). Pine is much cheaper and more readily available, but needs
two coats of urethane to resist mold. The racks must rest directly on the floor. For strength the best materials are steel, aluminum, and wood.
Choosing the Wine
Before you stock a cellar, it helps to understand the vernacular. “New World” winemakers in the U.S. and Australia market wine by the type of grape used to produce it–Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Shiraz and Zinfandel, for example (Rizzo). In Europe, the grape used to make the wine is often superseded by the name of the region in which the grape is grown–in part because the regions soil strongly affects the taste of the grapes (Rizzo). Red Bordeaux wines can be produced from several varieties of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Wine in half-bottles matures rapidly, and wine in Magnums more slowly, than wine in standard 750ml bottles. All three bottle sizes are made with necks of identical diameters and receive similar corks. The only conceivable explanation for the difference in aging speed is that identical amounts of oxygen are delivered for the maturation of drastically differing amounts of wine (Rizzo).
It was damp England s fondness for the ruby warmth of claret that first turned wine into an investment vehicle . (Power 50) The wine merchants of the 18th century learned to take a large financial position when the wine of a good harvest was offered in Bordeaux and then set aside a portion of their holdings. A few years later when the supply in the marketplace had been consumed and fondly remembered, the merchants sold their reserve at a handsome profit. This marketing strategy also demonstrated that the better Bordeaux reds actually improved in flavor in proper storage. Due to the enduring reputation of the Grand Bordeaux a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite sold for $155,453 at auction in London in 1985 (Bramhall). Wine of that immense age, of course, has passed from beverage into the status of semi-sacred relic (Bramhall).
In 1855, the Bordeaux merchants gathered in Paris and established a classification system for their wines, based on the prices they were able to fetch (Bramhall). Five growths , or classes, were created. Accorded the top rank (first growth) were Chateau Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion (a favorite of Thomas Jefferson) (Bramhall). Only one change has been made since then: Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second to first growth in 1973. All but one first-growth wine, Haut-Brion, from Graves, is made in the Medoc district of Bourdeaux. A wine that is perhaps the most expensive in the world Chateau Petrus isn t even classified among the five growths because it s made in the tiny Pomerol district of Bordeaux rather than in Medoc.
People collect fine wines for many reasons: a true love of wine, impressing friends or hoping to make a killing. The smartest wine collector may be the connoisseur who buys for both pleasure and profit. With some study and good counsel, you can collect wines in such a way that the appreciation on what you sell or trade will cover much of the cost of the wine you drink.
The older, the rarer, the more exquisite, the more it demands to be drunk. There is no greater pleasure than sharing a bottle of wine with one’s friend. “Wine is not like a postage stamp, frozen in a time warp on the pages of an album” (Halliday 9).