It’s a cellar’s market

Wine cellar systems have evolved since caves were considered the best option. (Photograph: Miele.)

HISTORIANS will tell you that caves provide the best environment in which to store wine. They will probably explain – almost certainly at great length, if my experience of historically-enabled individuals is anything to go by – that celebrated (and celebrating) folk like Bacchus, Dionysus and other ancient devotees of the vine instructed their underlings to tunnel deep into the slopes of Mount Olympus and hillsides around Rome so that they could safely store their vinous booty at wine-friendly temperatures, regardless of the weather.

Indeed, if your wine storage decisions hinge on historical evidence you might well begin burrowing into Lonehill, the rock face above Westcliff, the slopes of Table Mountain, the Valley of a Thousand Hills or whatever undulating landscape is most convenient for you.

Fortunately however, there are other more contemporary and specialised sources of information available to check in with on the subject of storing wine. Furthermore, there are a couple of convenient and un-grottoish cellaring options around that will enable you to successfully amass and store as large a collection of wine as you like, regardless of the size of your home, garage, spare bedroom, broom cupboard or mouldy nook beneath the stairway.

Although international sales indicate that most wine is drunk young these days, the wisdom of allowing wine to age in the bottle prevails in judicious and discerning wine circles. This is, quite simply, because most quality wines improve with age. In fact, the ageing of wine is central to getting the most from it because, as wine writer and judge, Michael Fridjhon asserts succinctly, “The things that make wine interesting emerge with age. Great wine transforms over time, hence the need for cellaring.”

The rationale is as follows. While very young wines can be fruitfully tasty and lively, many “close up” some unpredictable time after bottling and lose their flavour. The “things that make wine interesting” emerge once more – and with more intensity – some years later (again, it is difficult to predict at exactly when). At this point they begin to smell like wine once more and develop a greater persistence of flavour. During this phase – at which stage it should be cellared – a wine’s bouquet evolves and its astringency diminishes. This makes for an appealing mouth feel and carries the wine towards its most satisfying stage in terms of flavour, texture, length and balance.

Because wine is relatively sensitive to its surroundings, temperature, light and humidity-control are crucial to successful cellaring. Fluctuations in temperature, which expand and contract the liquid and the cork, can ruin wine. If it gets too hot or is exposed to intense sunlight, it deteriorates rapidly. If it gets too cold, it can freeze and push out the stopper. The ideal cellar temperature, says Fridjhon, is 12 -15°C with a relative humidity of 65 -75%.

Prolonged exposure to light can alter the chemical structure of a wine. Wine bottles, particularly those that are used for red wines, are made from dark glass for this reason. But dark glass alone is not enough to keep a wine in its original condition for very long so it is important not to expose wine to too much bright light.

Some degree of humidity is favourable to ensure that the cork does not dry out and allow in oxygen. Exposure to extreme levels of humidity can cause corks to mould. Bottles should be stored horizontally. Furthermore, if an ageing wine is jiggled about or otherwise agitated, many believe that the sediment will be disturbed, thereby disturbing the maturation process. While this theory is unproven, it makes sense not to move the wine about unnecessarily and/or too much.

While some serious wine collectors build temperature and humidity-controlled cellars in which to store their collections, many do not have the resources to do this. So, for want of a cave in the backyard, we resort to creatively – though not always satisfyingly – stashing bottles in all manner of vaguely suitable places around the house. In many cases, conditions are not ideal and precious wine does not achieve its full potential.

Disenchanted, we return to the fantasy of finding an unused subterranean cave in the neighbourhood with sagging shoulders.

But hark, there is hope above ground after all! Indeed, there are no less than two possible cellaring solutions at hand to help you build a great wine collection, neither of which require burrowing, building or a big bank account. You can either consign your collection to a professional wine cellaring company, such as Wine Cellar – which is based in Observatory, Cape Town but stores wines for collectors all over – or you can invest in a specially-designed-for-wine-cellaring-unit that will keep your ageing wine in perfect nick at the flick of a switch.

If you are unable to provide appropriate conditions for your wine and it is a significant investment, a professional wine storage company is a good option. For as little as R49 per case of 12 x 750 ml bottles per year, including VAT and insurance, Wine Cellar will carefully store your wine in clean, dark and vibration-free underground cellars that are secure, and kept at the right temperature and humidity.

It is a simple solution. At your request, winemakers – including most of those presenting their wines at shows like Winex – will deliver your wine to Wine Cellar. Thereafter, you can either collect it whenever you want it or have your wine delivered to you anywhere in the country by a courier. A password-protected inventory system means that you can check on your reserves online anytime.

“Most of our clients understand the value of maturing wine, and know which wines most benefit from ageing and for how long. They know the proper balance of the fundamentals of a wine can define the difference between a good bottle, that is drinkable now and a potentially great bottle, which needs time to mature,” says shareholder and manager of Wine Cellar, Roland Peens, who has tons of experience in wine retail, import/export and marketing, and as a sommelier and wine master. “We are fully-equipped to handle all aspects of handling, caring, storing and appreciating wine. We also understand the potential risks of handling wine and ensure that the utmost of care is taken when carrying, transporting and storing our clients’ precious investments.”

(The Bergkelder Vinoteque Wine Bank in Stellenbosch offers a similar service but only for wines purchased from its stable.)

If however, you prefer to keep your wine collection closer at hand, but do not have space for a dedicated cellar, there are several different types of cabinets available, which are specially designed to maintain accurate, consistent temperatures and provide the correct humidity levels for maturing wine.

Among the most popular of these are Miele’s wine coolers. These are available as freestanding units with either a single-temperature zone set-up or a three-temperature zone set-up. The latter of these provides an individually adjustable temperature range in each zone of between 3°C and 20°C. This means you can keep different bottles at different temperatures for storage or for drinking.

“As more and more South Africans learn about the value of properly storing and ageing wine, our wine storage units have become increasingly popular. Increasingly wine-lovers are appreciating that the value of ageing wine is easily offset against the cost of properly storing it,” says marketing co-ordinator for Miele’s professional market, Rory Talbot.

So, it is definite then: caves went out with the caveman and it is a cellar’s market.

(This article was first published in The Weekender in August 2008.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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One Response to It’s a cellar’s market

  1. like this post.

    You sent me it via twitter. Thanks for that

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