December 10, 2011

Wine Cellar Revelations

It’s been down there for years my friend.  The label was a bit faded last time I saw it and you may need to move a few bottles but I think you’ll find it in the lower bin at the far end of the cellar.  Just brush the dust off and bring it upstairs, I’ll bet it is drinking perfectly after all these years…

While perhaps not fully comprehendible in terms of chemistry, the magical transformation that occurs within a bottle of wine as it rests undisturbed in your cellar is one of life’s most underappreciated mysteries.  Wine enthusiasts have certainly grown to recognize the product of quality versus time and those who exercise the necessary willpower of patience also understand the significance of this century-old phenomenon.

Historically, the earliest examples of wine storage explore a combination of needs: a surplus of quantity in a good year, a supply for shipment to a distant region, and perhaps an inventory for religious need in the church.  It is doubtful that early inhabitants understood or could even anticipate the evolution of wine.  It is equally unlikely that vinous beverages showed even the slightest signs of improvement when left unconsumed for a season or longer.  But as winemaking techniques continued to evolve over time, logically the quality of the product did as well.  More structure and complexity also meant that a wine was not approachable immediately.  Perhaps early examples of intentional cellaring were the result of a newly crossed grape’s tannic structure.  Cabernet Sauvignon after all is a relatively young variety, having been the product of a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.  Did this new powerhouse grape catch its makers off guard with its bold nature?  Was the wine intentionally shelved out of concern for its bold and structured characteristics only to become a much more pleasant drink a year or two later?  Of the thousands of wine labels available in stores today, only a fraction will positively gain from additional time spent in the bottle; most wine is best consumed young while it is fresh and lively.

Wine storage is not a science but rather a necessity on the quest for oenological pleasure.  It is a minority that I reference both in terms of the wine eligibility and personal desire.  For the practice of cellaring wine is an art form and those able to grasp at the notion of laying a few bottles down also have a vision which allows them to paint the pleasures of good taste.  Contrary to popular belief, cellaring wine does not require perfect storage conditions;  I'll explain...     

I’ve been exploring this question for well over a decade by purchasing, cellaring, and consuming bottles stored in a passive cellar not unlike that which might have existed 200 years ago in Europe.  Forgoing the option of climate control for a simple thermometer, I watch and track the seasonal trends in this old cavern, brushing away cobwebs to inspect bottles purchased at point that seems like a lifetime ago.  Indeed, the technology does exist to create a sterile environment for bottle storage; one with sensors, digital readouts, alarms, and even smart-phone tracking.  Should the temperature or humidity index fluctuate and exceed a preset limitation, sophisticated back-up systems trigger to compensate and recover climatic control.  If you detect a note of sarcasm, you’ll also understand where this is going.

My cavern, if you will, lies beneath a brick home in the countryside an hour north of Toronto.  The structure rests upon a 3-foot-thick fieldstone foundation and the cellar floor is simply what existed on this site when they began construction 160 years ago – natural earth.  It is consistently cool in this unheated northeast corner room but consistent implies a constant state not a specific value, for the temperature fluctuates seasonally by approximately 5 degrees reaching 16˚C / 61˚F in the heat of the summer and dipping down to 7 or 8 degrees in the frigid winter months.  For the majority of the year, this dungeon-like room sits at a median value of 11˚C / 52˚F plus or minus a degree or two.  If this seems a touch vague, that is the whole idea.  I have left nature to run its course just as those cellaring wine a hundreds of years ago did.  When the power fails during an ice storm, the wine sleeps on.  And if the air conditioner decided to take the day off, the wine remains comfortable cool. 

The obvious response is that not everyone lives in an old home and while that fact is noted, surprisingly it holds little importance, for before this location, we were condo dwellers in the city.  As budding wine enthusiasts, our sun-filled home sat atop a 37 story building with floor to ceiling windows.  This was also prior to the popularity of wine refrigerators that are now readily available at both department stores and specialty wine shops.  As for the variables of temperature, humidity, vibration, and light, our collection of fine wine rested in a state of climatic chaos.  I’ll plead ignorance for 80 percent of the problem; I simply didn’t know any better at the time.  Our growing collection of bottles lay neatly piled on the floor in an alcove located at the base of the air conditioning and heating unit.  The thought literally sends shivers up my spine as I write.  But that was 15 years ago, and I know better now – or at least I am a wiser man for the experience.  The question remains though, did the wine suffer as a result of my highly questionable storage technique? 

A month ago, a group of wine guru types gathered at a nearby dining establishment to enjoy a good meal, great conversation, and a few special bottles salvaged from their past.  I happen to be the ring leader of this consortium we like to call the North of 9 Fine Wine.  The ante to play in our game is that you must contribute a bottle of stature.  Present at this particular function were a bottle of ’99 Orneliaia, an ’85 Haut Brion, 1er Cru Puligny-Montrachet from the house of Louis Jadot and a magnum of 1988 Dom Perignon from the condo of storage sins. 

The Dom stares at me each time I enter the cellar, and has for as long as I have owned this bottle.  The old Monk is forever present in my conscience; there to remind me of the neglect, taunting me and daring me to uncage and pop the bottle for a house full of guest.  How sweet would revenge taste for the old cellar master from Hautvillers if I were to pour a bottle of sour, stale, and lifeless Champagne for my guests.  

Well dear friends, here is where we learn a little something about the longevity of wine.  The 1988 Dom Perignon was stunningly good and full of life as it lit up the room with endless strings of bubbles and the softest most pure taste possible from a bottle of wine let alone 25 year old Champagne.  A friend sitting across from me refused to surrender his empty glass, opting instead to inhale the aromatic sensations that continued to cling to the empty flute.  He proclaimed the Champagne to be the greatest wine he had tasted; I was not far behind him on that opinion either.  But this is not a lesson on how to appreciate Dom Perignon, and I am of the strong opinion that Moёt et Chandon’s flagship cuvée is grosly overpriced. That said, if you do have a bottle in your cellar, do tuck it away and forget about it indefinitely; you will not be disappointed.  Rather, what I intend for you to gain from this recollection is that your collection of treasures does not necessitate flawless storage conditions.  The magnum of Champagne was in perfect condition despite having been violated in every possible way. Furthermore, nearly every bottle that endured our condominium’s treacherous environment has provided tremendous pleasure at the dinner table. 

Storage for investment purposes is another issue, and both purveyor and buyer alike rely heavily upon a wine’s providence to ensure the maximum return on a given investment.  Not that the wine will taste any better; it will not, but you must reduce the element of uncertainty to appease the purchaser. Cellaring for person consumption, while no less important, is a different animal entirely, but do not think for a second that the environment must be a sterile cold room, R60 insulated, and monitored like a Swiss bank.  That is overkill and the source of unnecessary expense and headache.  When the time does come to open your finest bottles, you will find comfort knowing that your cellar has conformed to a few basic guidelines.  

The evolution of a bottle of wine is primarily a function of temperature and wine stored at a higher temperature will evolve faster while storage on the cooler side of the spectrum simply means that you must wait longer to partake.  But you must also protect the process, for rapid fluctuations are by far a wine’s worst enemy.  Such extremes cause fluid expansion and will eventually compromise the cork’s seal.  Seasonal fluctuations on the other hand are perfectly acceptable and will do no harm to the process.   In terms of relative humidity, guidelines suggest 55-75% for cellaring wine and unless you live in some desert-like climate be it hot or cold, the moisture content of your home is surprisingly more than adequate to preserve the integrity of the cork for several years. Consider: The cooler the cellar, the drier the resultant environment and the greater the need for supplemental humidity. Darkness, or at least lack of direct sunlight is essential to prevent unwanted chemical reactions and vibration should be kept to a minimum.  Additionally, the room does require a certain amount of ventilation and harsh aromas should always be avoided. 

If you are like most wine enthusiasts, then you want nothing more than to enjoy your finest bottles several years down to road.  There is no need to over-prep for the occasion; just let the story unfold without interruption and don’t get worked up if one variable changes slightly.  It is somewhat unfortunate that we have inadvertently turned the pleasure of cellaring wine into a monumental task of unnecessary complexity. Can I suggest that you let Mother Nature do her job, the way she has done it for centuries. 

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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