What Makes a Good Cellar?

One of the most frequently asked questions about wine is the design of a wine cellar. Your cellar may consist of only a few bottles, stored in a carton under the bed, or a room just for the purpose. Here you might find not only wines but also mementoes such as posters, famous (but empty) bottles kept as souvenirs, all manner of corkscrews and books on wine. Enthusiasts potter round in their cellars, studying wine catalogues, checking their inventories, stowing bottles in the racks, and so on. Some people have extensive cellars with even a music sound system and designer lighting. The Amercian magazine Wine Spectator devotes a section to these enthusiasts. They are known as “wine collectors” and may not intend ever drinking the wines that they own. Even if you are not as serious as this about your cellar, the image is not far away. Most people talk about cellaring even if they do not carry out any. Most people ask about a wine’s ageing potential even if they know that they will be consuming it soon.

A good wine store:-

  • Has a constant, cool temperature (around 15° Celsius)
  • Is dark so sunlight won’t effect the wine. Don’t keep wine stored for long periods under fluorescent lights – the colour of the wine will be affected. Whites can lose their ‘bright’ appearance and reds their lively crimson colour
  • Has some humidity if bottles with corks are stored
  • Is a clean space. Don’t keep wines in a shed with strong chemicals such as paint thinners and so on. The odour may permeate the cork and affect the wine

Equipping your cellar should include:-

  • Racks and/or boxes/cartons for storage
  • Insulation
  • A maximum/minimum thermometer
  • A cooling system if a warmer climate

In cool parts of the world, such as Europe and across southern Australia, these conditions can be readily provided in a cellar. Of course your house needs to be built on a slope and be high enough to have a cellar underneath in the first place – but the ground conditions maintain a steady cold temperature and the ground itself acts as insulation to the outside air which warms up in summer. In northern Australia mechanical cooling is required because the ambient ground temperature is too warm.

The term ‘cellar’ also means a wine store, and your cellar need not be underground. It could be a cool room in the house, or a large cupboard in the back of the garage.

Constant temperature is the first factor to get right. If there are fluctuations, the pressure on the cork in the bottle will go up and down and these cyclical loads cause the cork to swell and contract repeatedly, losing its elasticity. Eventually, the cork will leak and the enemy of stored wine – oxygen – will enter. When air first comes into contact with wine it releases flavour, and that is why ‘breathing’ a wine increases its aroma. However, after a day or two the wine begins to spoil and after a week or two will turn to vinegar. If sealed by a cork, store the bottles on their side, or upside down so that the wine stays in contact with the cork. A wet cork stays swollen in the neck of the bottle, providing the necessary seal against air. Bottles with screw caps can be stored standing up.

Some people get confused about the crucial importance of temperature – they believe that if their wine is stored in a cellar excavated into the ground, then conditions will be fine. Use a thermometer to monitor temperature. Don’t be confused about storage materials – for example I have had several people explain to me that they place bottles into earthenware pipe racks and they believe that this keeps the bottle cooler. However, this is not true. Materials such as earthenware or polystyrene will maintain the ambient temperature of the surrounding space – although they can lessen fluctuations of temperature. Leaving bottles in the cartons achieves the same effect.

Wines should not be stored for more than two to three years at temperatures above 20° Celsius. Therefore, in warm areas, air-conditioning is required for storage in excess of two years.

Consider climate-controlled cupboards/wine fridges. For a large collection particularly that includes prestige wines, consider a contract storage service.

Don’t keep a memento bottle on display in a hot location (such as a sideboard in a living room). That special bottle given to you for an anniversary or birthday that sits on a shelf for many years, waiting for the perfect moment, will probably be spoiled. Keep good bottles carefully. If you drink all your wines regularly and don’t have a cool cellar, then store those odd, special bottles in the bottom of the fridge. Buy a cheap second-hand fridge for the garage and put your best wines in that, with the fridge at a warmer setting. Place a thermometer in the fridge and adjust it until it settles on 15° Celsius.