May 17, 2011

An Investment in Taste

- as written by T.Philp and published in the Spring 2011 edition of Footprints magazine

Cellaring wine is my passion, drinking it is the reward I collect for my patience. Seems a bit odd doesn’t it?  After all, why would a winery bottle a product that is not ready to drink and more so, why would I or anyone else pay a premium to own such an item?  There are several reasons, but let’s focus on quality.  

Just as the finest clothing is made from the highest quality of material, likewise, the top wines are the product of the best fruit and the purest expression of winemaking.  That only makes sense.  Most wine on the store shelves is for immediate consumption.  A small percentage however, will continue to improve, developing a greater aroma and flavour profile if properly stored for a few years.  The skins of grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, or Italy’s great Nebbiolo are very thick and contains an astringent tasting compound known as tannin (when you bite in to a grape seed and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth – that is tannin).  The juice from the best fruit can be rather bitter and therefore to ‘soften’ the resultant wine’s hard edges, grape must (juice) will spend several months and in some cases years enclosed in a barrel or cask.  Sure, there are ways around this, just stop the fermentation early leaving behind unconverted residual sugar and add a touch of purple dye to create the illusion of a deep red wine but then suddenly, we find ourselves comparing an authentic Rolex to a $20 Hong Kong knock-off.

All freshly pressed grape juice is white, actually, more opaque.  To obtain the red colour pigment from the grapes, winemakers must soak the crushed skins with the juice, a process called extraction. The skins will stain the juice red adding both flavour and complexity while at the same time, imparting a degree of bitterness (tannin) to the resultant wine.  With certain grapes, the tannins are fairly minor and actually add to the enjoyment of the wine; these are the bottles that do not need additional cellaring.  For the bigger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, and Barollo to name a few, this astringency is rather pronounced and extra steps must be taken to ensure a positive drinking experience.  As an example, Spanish wine is generally not released to the consumer until it is ready to drink which may take several years.  Spanish bodegas (wineries) literally have thousands of bottles ‘laying in wait’, some in the barrels and some in bottles.  Each year a percentage of that volume is released into the markets but with the new vintage, the stock remains approximately the same.  For many other regions though, the better labels do require a small investment of time on your part,      

In the cellar, I suggest that you keep two overall collections:  bottles for everyday enjoyment and those for future consumption.  Thus we avoid the temptation of drinking the ‘good stuff’ before it is ready. The everyday lot is a collection of your favourites, the ‘go-to’ bottles, and items readily available at the wine shop.  The ‘futures section’ on the other hand, is a collection of higher-end labels and wine for special occasions. 

Two types of wine cellars exist:  Passive and Active. 

·  Passive (Natural), in its most extreme sense, would be a cave; more realistically, a stone or brick foundation existing within but not isolated from the natural environment.

·  Active (Simulated), is exactly that, a re-creation of environmental conditions that could not exist otherwise. 

Basically, if you own an old home with a cold, dark, damp, and otherwise dingy root cellar, you also have the potential for an incredible passive wine cellar.  For most people though, that is not the case and therefore a simulation of these natural conditions is necessary, which is fine, it just takes a bit more work to put the environment together.  An active cellar, can take on a couple of forms:  an enclosed room with controlled temperature and humidity or a self-contained environment such as a ‘wine cooler’.  Both can be rather simplistic or exceedingly complex (and expensive) but no matter how you look at it, all wine storage systems must achieve the same basic principles:

Temperature – No single factor is more critical to the overall enjoyment of a glass of wine.  Temperature is considered during all phases of a wine’s life: from the growth of the grapes to their fermentation during production, the long transition within the barrel, and then shipping container and warehouse conditions, followed by your cellar climate and finally, the temperature at which you serve the final product to your guests.  Temperature can play havoc or even destroy a fine wine at any point during the bottle’s fragile journey to the dinner table.

The ideal temperature range for the storage of fine wine is between 11°C/52°F and 13°C/55°F.  The key here is not simply a cool climate but rather one which is consistent: 15°C year round is preferred over 15° during the day and 10° at night for example, and while seasonal fluctuations are acceptable, rapid temperature changes are a wine’s worst enemy. 

Humidity – If you plan to store wine for any significant amount of time, the relative humidity of the environment must be considered.  A wine cellar should fall within the range of 55 to 75% ideally.  Higher than 80% will not harm the wine but will likely induce mould growth while lower than 60% will cause the corks to dry out which in turn, may allow air to enter the bottle and subsequently spoil the wine.  To maintain an adequate degree of moisture on the cork surface, it is generally recommended to lay the bottles on their sides.  Long-term care however, requires moisture on both sides of the cork and thus the need for a relatively humid environment. 

Light – or lack of is best.  Wine and ultraviolet rays are natural enemies.  The by-product of the two are compounds known as mercaptans, a volatile sulphur substance that negatively affects the development of wine with respect to its aroma, taste, structure and ageing potential.  A wine having come under prolonged exposure to bright light and which exhibits an undesirable aroma is said to be ‘light-struck’ and, depending on the light source, these negative effects may occur very quickly.

Vibration – should be avoided if you intend to cellar bottles with potential for any significant amount of time. The explanation of how and why vibration damages wine is somewhat of an obscure area, though when we discuss the concept of vibration, we are referring to constant minor disruption of the still liquid contents.  Wine, as we all know, is an organic product which changes and develops over time due to chemical reactions occurring within its own environment – the bottle.  The final outcome of a wine’s scent, taste and texture is entirely predicated on the successful chemical transformation of the wine’s structure.
photo courtesy of

Properly cellaring your best bottles, in many cases, will repay in dividends and you will be astonished at the difference a year or two can make.  I could easily go on for pages on this subject but this brief explanation should serve as a guideline and who knows, it might even get you thinking about that dark corner in your basement...  


Men are like wine,
 some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.
- Pope John XXIII

1 comment:

  1. Hey Tyler,
    Where did you get that picture of the front entry to my house?? (dreamhouse that is)


Choose Anonymous if you're not sure what to select under 'Comment As'

Some background...

My photo
Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine