. . . And Into the Closet

If, as I argued in my last post, the best reason to cellar wines is to revel in the marvelous flavors of wine at its mature peak, that leads to some basic questions. Do you need a literal cellar?  Which wines should you put in it? What conditions, minimal or optimal, do they really need to grow into the graceful adults that we want to drink?

Minimal conditions: My wine closet

Most of the wines that repay cellaring are reds – but not all of them, and not even always reds. Essentially, wines with good body and generous structure, especially with good acidity and sufficient grape tannins (from the grapes, not the barrels), benefit most from aging, and that description fits a lot of the world’s wines. 

The great estates of the Médoc and, to a lesser extent, some from St. Emilion and Pomerol on the opposite bank of the Gironde, were the first collectors’ wines and still remain the primary focus of connoisseurship. These are followed closely by the now-famous red Burgundies of the Côte d’Or, where some of the white wines – the grands crus Chablis, for instance, and some Cortons, Meursaults, and Montrachets – also develop beautifully in the bottle. By the mid-19th century, the great Rhone reds – Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage – had joined the ranks of wines for laying down. Knowing wine lovers now also seek out the best growers from other Rhone villages, particularly Cornas and St. Joseph.  

In Italy, three noble red varieties produce wines that are notably age-worthy:  

  • From the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and other village wines of the Piedmont.
  • From Sangiovese, Chianti Classico Riserva, Brunello di Montalcino, and some Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
  • From Aglianico, Taurasi, Falerno Rosso Riserva, and Aglianico del Vulture.

Increasingly, top-flight Nero d’Avolas from Sicily also reward cellaring. Spain’s Vega Sicilia and its classically made Riojas are notoriously long-lived – but the traditional styles of the latter are, alas, increasingly hard to find.  

New-world wines – from California, the US northwest, Australia, New Zealand – are only now establishing a track record, so their ageability is hard to predict. Because of my European-oriented palate, I have experience primarily with more continental-style winemakers – estates such as Chalone, Montelena, Trefethen, and especially Ridge, almost all of whose wines I would happily cellar. I don’t drink Ridge’s Zinfandels, for instance, until they are 8 to 10 years old, when for my taste they are perfectly balanced and elegant. Its Cabernets I keep even longer.  

The biggest problem in storing wine is, simply, heat. Really excessive heat destroys wines in very short order. Ordinary household warmth won’t kill wines, but it will speed up their normal process of maturation. That, depending on the wine and your preferences, can be a good or a bad thing. If you are putting together a collection with the thought of leaving it to your children or grandchildren (or for re-sale; as Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui!), then you definitely need some form of climate control. On the other hand, if you’re buying wines for your own consumption, wines that you want to drink at their maturity, and if you’re brave enough to face the fact that you won’t live forever – well, in that case a little heat won’t be too bad. It will bring the wine around sooner, so you may actually get to enjoy some slow-maturing wines before you lose your palate or your wits.  

This past Christmas, I opened a bottle of 1989 Barolo Lazzarito from Vietti, which had been stored since purchase in my less-than-ideal domestic conditions. The wine was gorgeous, evolving absolutely classically, and at 20 years of age not yet at its peak. I don’t know about you, but 20 years is about the limit of my patience (and at this stage of the game, the outer limit of my life expectancy), so that works out fine, as far as I’m concerned.  

I’ve found that wines can survive in a New York City apartment. And if that’s so, then probably they might even thrive in your home, in a closet, in a spot where they are not jostled, and where the heat varies only gradually over the course of the year. That’s important, because sudden spikes in temperature, whether up or down, do seem to have seriously bad effects on wine. But basically, if you can live comfortably with the conditions, the odds are your wines can too – maybe not forever, but long enough for most of us.  

My domestic wine storage is effectively a compromise: the space available and the limits on my budget modify my otherwise uncontrolled desire to acquire. My home cellar is, simply, a broad, shallow, centrally located closet with diamond-shaped shelving. It’s rarely as cool as I would like (a fan helps in summer), but never preposterously hot, though most of the year it is certainly warmer than ideal. But the temperature changes only gradually, and the worst effect I’ve noticed is that some wines – not all, by any means – mature markedly faster in it than they would in an actual cold cellar.  

For wines that I want to hold longer term, I rent storage space in a huge old warehouse along the Hudson river – not designed for wines, not airconditioned, but comfortable all summer long, and moderately warm in winter. Again, such temperature changes as occur happen very gradually, and my experience has shown me that that is the most important factor in preserving and maturing wines.  

Most problems with stored wines arise from corks. Corking probably destroys more wines than bad storage ever did. The culprit is a fungus in the cork that grows with age and permeates the wine, so a young wine may be slightly corked and an older wine completely ruined, smelling and tasting of damp cardboard. Unfortunately, there is no way of detecting this problem until you open the bottle, when it usually makes itself painfully apparent.

The only remedy – and it’s not perfect – is the plastic-wrap treatment. Pour all the wine into a bowl, take a large sheet of plastic wrap, dunk it in the bowl, slosh it around a bit, and leave it there for 5 or 10 minutes. (The molecule that infects the wine is chemically akin to the polyethylene in the wrap, and it bonds to the plastic.) Then squeeze the wine out of the wrap, discard the wrap, and transfer the wine into a pourable container.  This procedure can make many apparently ruined wines drinkable, if not all that they would have been, so you get at least some small reward for your patience.  

On the other hand, when the cork is sound and the wine mature, the reward your patience reaps is enormous, and unmatchable any other way. Bear that in mind when you’re next buying wine. The stock market “wisdom” (Hah!) is “buy low, sell high.”  Wine wisdom is “buy young, drink old.”

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