Grapeguru in the Cellar

Only in the last nine years have I had a real cellar – underground, dark, a bit damp and with a fairly stable cool temperature. Once we moved in, I started buying wine en primeur and laying it down for future drinking. This is worthwhile only if you have the right cellar conditions, but what it allows is a choice of wines that you won’t get in a supermarket, or most wine retailers, at a price that ought to be below what you will pay when it comes onto the market at a time when it is fit to drink. I can only say that the price ‘ought’ to be lower because there are instances of en primeur prices being set too high, then falling over the next few years. You have to make your own assessment of that.

The result of the last few years’ buying effort had been a stack of cardboard wine cases with only four of the traditional wooden cases, in this case housing 2005 Bordeaux. Now cardboard isn’t at its strongest in a slightly damp cellar and the risk of picking up a box of 2005 burgundy and having the bottles fall onto the concrete floor was beginning to weigh on my mind – I make it a rule to worry only about truly important matters. So it was time to give it a more secure home.

I bought two DIY 72-bottle racks and a joining kit from Rapid Racking and carefully screwed it to the cellar wall. There’s no point in swapping dangerous cardboard boxes for a wine rack that can be toppled. The result was 153 bottles sitting prettily and securely against the wall. (72 + 72 + 9 = 153 No prizes for where the 9 came from.)

They are also easier to find like this; I was just getting to the point where I had to shift two or three cases to see if the case I wanted was hidden underneath. And however nerdish it might seem, you do need a cellar book. Mine is a spreadsheet which shows the wine, including the vintage, number of bottles, price paid (mostly as a reminder of relative quality), tasting notes (from the supplier) and a space for my own, and finally the estimated drinking window (usually from the supplier).

The reason for making your own notes is that when you first break into a case you need to assess if it is really ready to drink and make a note of the fact. It is rather unlikely that you will find yourself contradicting the supplier’s notes, though you might supplement or adjust them. Mine typically include things like ‘Christmas 2008; needs another year or two’ and ‘more austere than advertised’.

You also need to keep track of the number of bottles remaining. You could always go and look of course, but once you have a couple of hundred bottles that gets silly. Worse, you have to pull out bottles to read the label when wine should be moved as little as possible.

Finally, and at the risk of stating the obvious, wine should be stored on its side to keep the cork, assuming it’s a real cork, wet. If you have ever tried to open a bottle of wine and found that the cork turned with the corkscrew and/or slid easily down into the bottle you will know why. You can also bet that the wine was bought from a retailer who had kept it standing upright for too long, which probably also means on a shelf in a shop too warm for long term storage. I am no friend of real cork, I have had far too much corked wine, but at least treat it properly while you pray for the traditionalists to grow up and use plastic or screwcaps. They might then diversify by offering mp3s of the sound of corks squeaking and popping. Ringtone anyone?

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