The rules of cellaring

WineCellaring wine is an essential part of wine’s mystique. The ability for wine to improve in the bottle makes it a unique beverage—and adds to its commercial value, its collectability, and overall prestige and attraction. Winemakers and sommeliers do as much as they can to massage this characteristic of wine along, of course they do. Hence we talk about wine varieties or styles that have ‘proven track records’; and we talk about wineries with a ‘cellaring pedigree’. Such wines stand the test of time, and with careful cellaring, can outperform blue chip shares on the stock exchange—I kid you not. Besides, you can’t drink a share scrip.

But the key phrase in all of this is ‘careful cellaring’, without which wine spoils faster than a classic, mint-condition Lamborghini left in a supermarket car park over a long weekend.

Poor storage conditions are your biggest threat when it comes to keeping wine—nowadays far outstripping cork taint issues, thanks to the supremacy of screw caps over the last 15 years or so. Yes, wine that has been stored in a too hot environment can, over a relatively short space of time, cook. It might only take one week of hot weather and the precious $55 LUC red you’ve bought six cases of is ruined, at least technically speaking. So if you are going to invest time and money in cellaring and cellared wines, please satisfy the following points before you invite your bank manager and accountant to lunch.

Physical requirements

1. Climate control.

A cellar is not an old IKEA cupboard in the spare corner of your dry goods section. If you want to store cellared wines or even cellar new release wines yourself, you need climate control.

You will need the following storage conditions guaranteed: a steady, unwavering temperature of at least 14° centigrade. If your controlled temperature is lower, that’s fine—although you obviously don’t want to freeze the wine. Anything between eight and 14° centigrade will do.

Indeed, you could use a few old domestic fridges set to their warmest level for wine storage, as long as you only stored screw capped wines. The problems with domestic refrigeration techniques for longterm wine storage relates to humidity, which is our next point.

Any wine sealed with a cork will need wine storage conditions that protect that cork’s performance. Humidity is key. Too dry—such as the low humidity that exists within a domestic fridge—dries the cork, thus shrinking it. Oxygen exchange then occurs. Or worse, the cork shrinks so much wine flows out of the bottle. Humidity between 65 and 75 per cent suits wine storage. Anything too humid, say 95 per cent, and the labels start to absorb air moisture and bubble or fade. Or peel off.

“Offer a ten year old red by the glass on Thursday nights. You lower the cost for your customer to get into the game, and you provide an educational wine component”

Other factors that ensure good wine maturation include stability, light, and security. Wine while it sleeps does not like to be agitated, or shook up. This may create a problem for you if you plan to run a hospitality venue complete with a fine wine cellar next to an open-cut mine, or in a revolving restaurant. Otherwise, it’s not a biggy. Light is slightly more of a concern. Light-strike is the effect on bottled liquids provided by UV light. Wine bottles, being mostly green, cut out UV penetration, but clear or brown bottles do not. So if you are planning to make a feature of your wine cellar, complete with subtle, sensitive lighting, factor this in.

The last physical aspect of wine cellaring is security. Usually against yourself. A gregarious restaurateur, at around 1am, with a key to the locked wine cellar, is a dangerous thing.

2. The showcase cellar. 

If you are going to keep or cellar wine then you might as well build it’s storage into your ongoing marketing plan. The Wine Wall at the Botanical Hotel in Melbourne’s South Yarra does this with some aplomb. A glass storage bank full of wine, on display, that acts like a 3D wine list. A dedicated wine tasting room is also another way to leverage your cellared wine’s potential worth.

Fiscal requirements

1. Establishing your own cellar.

This is the hardest part of the bottle-aged wine equation. Establishing a cellar in an Australian restaurant requires capital expense, climate control, floor space, and, finally, stocking. You then wait, and wait, hoping that in ten years you’ll still be in business and realising the well-earned mark-ups on the wines you’ve kept for a decade at, so far, zero profit. You then have to make sure the wines you bought ten years ago are still popular, have cellared as you thought they would, and that the overall economy provides you with customers who can afford the wines. People reckon opening a restaurant is madness; but putting a cellar in it, well…

2. Buying mature wines on the secondary wine auction market.

This is the quick fix for many hospitality businesses who want to have a representation of older wines from known wineries and respected vintages on their wine lists. The fiscal advantage is obvious, as you don’t lock up money in a wine cellar for too many years. You buy the wines matured. The only downside is provenance. Every bottle of Grange I’ve ever seen advertised in a wine auction comes with an “impeccable cellaring history”. Buying cellar release wines direct from wineries helps avoid this problem, the presumption being that wineries will store their wines properly.

Realising the profits

1. Active marketing and advertising.

You have to let people know that cellared wine is your thing, that you do it seriously and properly. Advertise master classes, food and wine matching nights, and winemaker dinners.

2. Use your wine list as an in-house promotional tour of your cellared wines.

Have a cellared wine reserve list, but also incorporate a few cellared wines into your standard wine list, and even make mention of said wines alongside some of your signature, high-end dishes on the menu.

3. And consider normalising fine, matured wines.

Offer a ten-year-old red by the glass on Thursday nights. One bottle can make for six 120ml pours at, say $25 a glass. You lower the cost for your customer to get into the game, and you provide an educational wine component too boot. And if all of the above should fail, you can always cash your cellared wine to the wine auction market. There’s no failure in trying to offer a generous and difficult tier of hospitality.

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