It’s one of those fantasies that fall under “when I win the lottery”: a wine cellar. It’s not that I lack wine— for those of us in the wine business, that’s never a problem. What I and my fellow city-dwelling wine geeks lack is space.
“I fantasize about devoting part of my tiny water closet to a designated storage unit,” says one long-term wine writer living in an old-school Soho walk-up. “Until then, it’s under the bed, as far away from light as possible, and my air conditioner on economy during the hot months.”
I’d been thinking that I should do something with mywine—something more official than stuffing cases under my kitchen prep table. It’s fun to see how a wine changes over time in the bottle. Even very affordable wines (the bulk of my “collection”) can get a lot more interesting after being forgotten about for a couple of years.
But the more friends I canvassed, the more it became clear that I was the only one trying to solve the problem with an elaborate system. After all, since we’re planning not on reselling the wine but rather drinking it, the requirements— a cool temperature and a dark space— are pretty basic (see sidebar at left).
Most wine books add “a vibration-free environment” to this list of requirements, but this isn’t an issue for any but old wines that have “thrown a sediment”—that is, that have some gunky stuff that’s precipitated out of the wine. You want this sediment to settle, rather than be in constant suspension (especially when it comes time to drink it). That means the top of the washing machine isn’t prime wine real estate.
“Humidity control” is another buzzword in the cellaring world, but unless you live in the desert, don’t sweat it. And the need to lay bottles on their sides is fading with the increased use of screw caps—and it isn’t much of an issue anyway, unless (again) you live in a desert (in which case, the wine will help keep the cork moist, and therefore the fit tight).
So how do the pros with big collections, small spaces, and even smaller budgets handle the dilemma? Everyone I talked to didn’t want to admit it, but they simply make do. They fill bins from The Container Store with bottles and roll them under the bed (it’s dark, and the bedroom is often the most air-conditioned place in the home). They also use cardboard “twelves” (sturdy cases that hold 12 bottles of wine); they rip off the tops, tip the boxes on their sides, and stuff them in the back of the closet, where they conveniently double as shoe racks.
Or they employ the same technique as my two Austrian wine importer friends: They line one wall of their apartments with the most basic sort of wooden wine racks and arrange boards over the top of them to create a long sideboard. The room looks great, the wines stay mostly dark and mostly cool, and it’s easy to access them whenever the need arises.
And if, in those lovingly assembled, strategically positioned, DIY cellars, the wine still goes south? Oh, well. It happens— even in perfect conditions. The beauty of cellaring wine is the reminder that wine is constantly evolving; you’re just along for the ride.
on the CHEAP
You don’t need to spend big to get wines that benefit from some time in the cellar. I’ve had luck with everything from nonvintage sparkling wines to Frascati (yes, a $9 bottle of Fontana Candida) to obscure Hungarian reds. Here are some sure bets:
Grown just inland from where the Loire meets the Atlantic, Muscadet is known to be light and refreshing, with bracing acidity. But not all of it is simply for quaffing. Tuck away a couple of bottles of Domaine de la Pépière Les Gras Moutons or Clos des Briords (which cost about $17 to $20 apiece) and that acidity will keep them fresh even as the flavors deepen, becoming profoundly stony and saline.
New York Riesling
The longevity of German Riesling is well documented, but people still haven’t caught on to the fact that the best dry Finger Lakes Rieslings are also vibrantly lively, stony wines that age well, too—so it’s still easy to pick up a bottle for under $20. Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling, Ravines Cellars, and Dr. Konstantin Frank are just three names to seek.
This red from northern Greece could be called the poor man’s Barolo. It’s light in hue and rich in aromas, from sour cherries to freshly turned earth, and it only gets more truffle-y with time. Boutari’s basic—a classic example—is sold for about $18.
Often earthy and a little tannic, Portuguese reds as a whole tend to be good candidates for the cellar; even a juicy, raspberry-scented $10 Periquita from José Maria da Fonseca turns more complex and interesting over time.
Classic Rioja—tangy with Tempranillo’s acidity and bright in cherry flavors— sells for a song and ages beautifully. Cune, Marqués de Cáceres, and Federico Paternina all have basic bottlings that run about $15 apiece.