I’m often questioned about wine cellars and what is the proper environment for storage and aging wines at home. Truth be known, I don’t have a “cellar” with a large collection of untouchable bottles waiting “just for the right time” to uncork. My “cave à vin” can be found on the floor in the coolest closet of the house, complete with 12 bottle cardboard holder. I try to age younger reds and pour the better reds.
Fortunately my neighbor keeps bottles cool for me in his cellar. A classic rock basement, converted to a walk-in with earth floor, relatively moderate humidity, low voltage lighting and enhanced with redwood racks from old casks. Horizontal bottle storage allows the corks to keep in contact with the wine – not required for the Australian screw-top caps.
Whether you’re a professional collector, connoisseur or simple consumer, it’s common knowledge that wines face adversaries in their challenge to mature gracefully. There are unique conditions important to the proper storage and aging of wine, but nothing more critical than consistency in temperature (regulated 55º to 62º F). Variation in temperature of bottled wine storage accelerates the aging process.
“In red wines, the result can be the pigments polymerizing and falling out of the wine as sediment. It also could result in the premature loss of fruit flavors and aromas in both reds and whites. White and pink wines can display brownish tints in color early on,” said Etienne Cowper, Winemaker at Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula. Humidity (between 50% to 70%), darkness of colored bottles help shield exposure (ultra-violet radiation from sunlight damages color and flavor), and a stable environment (free of vibration) are also important.
The chemistry of red wine determines its structure and aging potential. First-Growth Bordeaux’s and Vintage Ports for example are crafted for long cellar aging as they tend to possess a dense tannic structure and intense pigmentation and may be unapproachable in the first 10 years after bottling. “Different red grape varieties have different pigment structures in their skins. Some varieties like Sangiovese and Pinot Noir lack some of the intense pigments found in Petite Sirah, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, amongst others,” said Cowper.
Wines produced in the “International style” which are soft on the palate, fruit forward, and ready to drink, are not good candidates for long-term cellaring and aging. Longer aging reds are likely to taste rather tannic when young.
“These are tannins that give structure and mouth-feel – not bitter hard or green tannins. Tannins are natural anti-oxidants and help give a red wine a long life,” said Cowper. “Please note that what one looks for in a wine that has been properly cellar aged for 10 years or more isn’t going to be what one looks for in a young red wine. Aged wines are not fruit forward but have developed complex flavors and bouquet associated with the chemistry of bottle aging.”
Cellars and storage cabinets vary in design, price, function and fashion. Here’s a few cellaring tips from local “cellar dwellers” who share pleasure and passion for protecting their purchases age worthy vintages and enjoying all bottles regardless of price.
Richard Crean of Alta Loma
The cellar in the Crean home in Alta Loma was designed and constructed as part of a remodel after the 2003 Grand Prix fire. The 200 sq. ft. walk-in is located off the dining room and finished with attractive wood of walnut, serving as a beautiful accent to the décor.
“I have been interested in wine since I came back to California after my military service, roughly 35 years ago. I enjoy wines that will compliment, or be complimented by the food I am eating at that time. However, from time to time, I find that I am making menu choices around a particular grape varietal,” said Crean. “I am fascinated that wine touches agriculture, chemistry, romance and history. It evokes memories of good time with friends and family.”
Crean’s wine purchases are for personal consumption, gifts to clients, friends and charities. “It’s a live cellar with constant movement. Right at the top of my favorites are the Estate wines of Clos Pepe Vineyards Santa Rita Hills,” said Crean. “The Pepe and Hagen families grow and produce premium quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Their vintages have earned high ratings in major wine publications and competitions including the 2009 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.”
Crean utilizes CellarTracker.com to maintain the 1,500 bottle inventory and to create wine lists. “Eric Levin created CellarTracker approx six years ago. It is the largest wine data base service,” said Crean. Sylvester the black and white cat is the cellar keeper!
Fellow Rotarian and wine enthusiast John Lerias of Claremont has enjoyed wines for several years and one of his favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blanc. Why a cellar in the Lerias home? “Passion to preserve and serve wine at its optimum quality. My cellar is nothing special. It’s refrigerated, temperature controlled with 50 bottle capacity,” said John. “I rotate bottles in and out based on perceived quality of the wine, due to limited space. The higher the quality, the higher priority it stays in the cellar.”
Alex Velto of Upland has collected wines for over 15 years but acquired the “wine bug” in 1999 when he purchased a home with its own cellar. “My grandfather had made his own wine for most of his life and as a child I remember his cellar in New York. I really don’t have a favorite wine, I always try to match the wine with the food but if forced to choose it would probably be a big cab (Cabernet Sauvignon) with a few years age on it or a Burgundy (French Pinot Noir).
Velto’s cellar is split refrigeration, built below the house. “It holds over 1,500 bottles. It’s not very big but we have racks, a table and a couple of chairs and plenty of floor space for cases and crates,” said Velto. “I am always receiving emails and offerings on wines and just pick and choose things based on the quality of the vintage. I look to keep a balance of varietals so if I notice I am low on Zinfandels then I might look to add some.”
Gino L. Filippi can be reached at Ginoffvine@aol.com