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Starting Your Own Mini Wine Cellar

There are many good reasons to keep some extra bottles on hand. Here are tips on which wines to store and how long they'll keep.

Fine Cooking Issue 28

Photo: Boyd Hagen

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Though the words “wine cellar” may bring to mind stone steps leading down to a cobwebby cave, or the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman cellar scene in Notorious, keeping a wine cellar needn’t be a somber undertaking. And the decision to start one is as easy as deciding that the bottle you bought for tonight’s dinner isn’t right and putting it aside for another occasion. If you buy a few extra bottles each time you shop, before long you’ll have a wine collection.

A collection of goodies for every occasion

So why else bother stowing wine away? There are lots of good reasons.

You’ll have bottles you know at your fingertips. For me, having a cellar is like having a pantry well stocked with great ingredients. It means that I have on hand both young and vintage wines that I’m familiar with, making a bang-up dinner easy and fun to put together.

You’ll have good wines for impromptu occasions. Especially if you don’t have a wine merchant down the street, a wine cellar means that you’ve got delicious bottles around to serve drop-in guests or to bring to that last-minute dinner at your neighbor’s.

You’ll be able to take advantage of sales and bargains. Deciding to stock up on wine means that, for reasonable prices, you can buy recent releases that will be hard to find or astronomically priced years from now when the wines come to maturity.

You’ll taste the aging process as it happens. If you buy six or twelve bottles of something good, you’ll have years of interesting drinking, because you’ll be able to taste a bottle every year or two, checking on the wine’s development as time goes by.

You’ll have wonderful wines for special occasions. Whether it’s to enjoy with a few friends over dinner, as a gift for your best friend’s fiftieth, or to pop open for your kids’ college graduations, you’ll have wines to savor for years to come.

Tips for home wine storage

The wine cellar of my dreams is a glass-enclosed room with a quarry tile floor and custom cherrywood racks, but for now, I use a closet in my apartment and a wine storage locker nearby, which works just fine. Here are some hints on wine storage.

  • Choose the darkest, coolest place in the house. If it’s the basement and yours is prone to flooding, keep boxes on a pallet so they’re off the floor.
  • Resist the temptation to display wines on the hutch shelf. No matter how nifty-looking, wine racks belong sheltered from light.
  • Keep wine away from machinery that vibrates or throws off heat.
  • Lay bottles on their side to keep the corks moist so air won’t get in the bottle.
  • Racks make finding bottles easier, but they’re not a must. Keeping wines in their original cartons is fine; just be sure the boxes are sturdy. Wooden wine crates work well, too; check to see if your wine retailer is getting rid of some.
  • If you’re stashing wine in boxes, mark the contents clearly on the outside.
  • Keep a cellar log and inventory, whether it’s a notebook or a sheet of paper, listing medium- and long-term wines and about when they should be drunk. After you’ve tried a bottle, mark it off by entering dates and tasting notes.
  • Stow bottles to be drunk soon within easy reach. Make sure long-aging wines are harder to reach, so you’re not tempted to drink them before they’re ready.

Think short, medium, and long term

Whether your collection consists of fifteen cases or two, the collecting strategy remains the same.

A good plan is to think in time blocks of short, medium, and long term. Although it’s impossible for me to list the life spans of all wines, here’s an idea of the types of wine you should consider for each time block.

Short-term wines for casual get-togethers and weeknight dinners. There are a wealth of these from every wine-growing region in the world, especially white wines from California, Australia, Italy, France, and New Zealand, and reds from Spain’s Navarra, France’s Languedoc-Roussillon, and California’s Monterey and Central Coast regions. Expect to spend $7 to $20 per bottle.

Medium-term wines for special dinner parties and treats. These are wines that will be a step up in quality, with aging potential for three to ten years. This is probably the easiest category to shop for; reds especially are plentiful. You’ll find delicious bargains that drink well in the near future from important regions known for their long-aging wines, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. Other reds to search out for medium-term aging are Italian Chianti, California Syrah and Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, and wines from the southern Rhône in France. Look for white wines from Alsace and the Loire in France, from Tuscany and Friuli in Italy, and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from California. Expect to spend $12 to $30 for wines with medium-term aging potential.

Long-term wines for special occasions and important dinners. These will have the structure and complexity for ten years of aging and beyond. Look for specials at wine stores and grab them now while they’re available and affordable. The payoff will be some delicious finds that you’ll enjoy years from now.

For the most part, wines in this category will be reds—look to Italy’s Piemonte and Tuscany regions, to Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the northern Rhône in France, to Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Catalonia in Spain, and to Portugal for ports and Madeira. The most age-worthy white wines in this group are dessert wines from Germany and Hungary, and Sauternes from France. The sky’s the limit here as far as spending goes, but expect to start at about $15.

A loose guide to help with your cellaring strategy







White Wines

White Wines

Australia: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Italy: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco
New Zealand: Sauvignon Blanc

California: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
France: Alsace, Loire
Italy: Friuli (Sauvignon), Alto Adige (Pinot Bianco)

Red Wines

Red Wines

Australia: Grenache
California: Pinot Noir, Merlot
France: Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon, Côtes du Rhône
Italy: Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Rosso di Montalcino
Spain: Navarra

Australia: Shiraz-Cabernet and Shiraz-Grenache blends
California: Syrah, Zinfandel
France: Loire (Chinon), Rhône (Cornas, Gigondas, St. Joseph), Burgundy, Bordeaux
Italy: Tuscany (Chianti, Sangiovese), Valpolicella (small producers)
Portugal: Barca Velha





White Wines

Red Wines

dry wines

dry wines

Austria: Wachau
California: Carneros and Russian River (Chardonnay)
France: Burgundy, Alsace

Australia: Barossa Valley (Shiraz); Cabernet blends
California: Napa and Sonoma (Cabernet)
France: Burgundy, Bordeaux, northern Rhône
Italy: Piemonte, Tuscany
Spain: Rioja, Ribera del Duero

sweet wines

sweet wines

California: late-harvest dessert wines
France: Sauternes
Germany: Spätlese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Auslese
Hungary: Tokaji

Portugal: Port, Madeira

Wine needs peace and quiet in a cool, humid spot

Wine likes dark, cool, humid conditions, and the absence of vibration. You won’t often find all those conditions in your home unless you install a cooling unit, so I advise a compromise. Find the coolest spot in the basement, away from heating units and water heaters, or a closet that isn’t positioned on an outside wall.

If you feel yourself becoming really impassioned about collecting wine, you may find your stash growing too big for your house. When my collection started taking over my apartment, I rented a wine locker. In many cities, companies rent small lockers for long-term wine storage. Ask your local wine merchant: chances are he or she has bottles stowed there, too.


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