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Tuesday 31 January 2017

What to bear in mind when you start a wine cellar

There are many good reasons to put together your own wine collection.

You might want to always have a small selection of good bottles on hand for when friends drop by. Or perhaps you want to put away some high-quality bottles to enjoy in a decade or more. 

Or maybe you consider that storing some bottles sensibly might be a good investment.

Whatever your reason for wanting to start a cellar, it pays to move carefully. Poor planning can result in both disappointment and financial loss.

What do you plan to collect? Where do you plan to store the wines? Are you investing in drinking pleasure, or for profit? So many questions to be addressed.

Most people choose to cellar wines that they plan to drink down the track. But if you are a lover of big Barossa shiraz right now, how do you know your tastes will not have changed in 10-15 years time? Today's shiraz drinker could be tomorrow's pinot noir aficionado.

A purpose-built cellar, or even a wine fridge, can prove expensive for beginners, but an awful lot of wine has been ruined by being stored in a garage or under the bed.

Storing wine in a well-insulated shed in cool-climate Tasmania may work just fine, but in tropical Queensland it could be a recipe for disaster. Consistency of temperature is a key to maintaining wines in peak condition, but storage in air-conditioned, temperature-controlled facilities can be costly.

Wines you choose to drink now, say from organic, biodynamic or “natural” producers might not be what the investment market is looking for and wines that are low in sulphur are often best enjoyed in their youth. If making a profit is your (very optimistic) aim, it might pay to take professional advice on which wines to put away.

And are you prepared to take a risk on notoriously unreliable corks? Some collectors will tell stories of over 20% spoilage over a period of years due to faulty corks or premature oxidation. Yet markets in Asia and the United States still generally prefer wines under cork to those bottled under screw caps.

Leading US wine writer James Laube recently wrote in the magazine Wine Spectator: “Wines you buy to lay down should have some sort of rhyme and reason, but in the end most don't.

Wines are often more impulse purchases than careful consideration. And it's far easier to accumulate wines on whim than strategise. There's also something about the hunt that leads otherwise rational people to buy more than they need.”

All things to consider before you take a big jump into the unknown and start your collection.

I hope I haven't scared you off, however. There can be great pleasure in selecting a perfectly matured wine from your cellar and sharing it with friends – and the wines you cellar do not have be expensive icons like Penfolds Grange (the new 2012 release sells for $850 a bottle) or Henschke's single vineyard Hill of Grace Shiraz, which is only marginally cheaper.

Wine Ark, Australia’s largest wine storage provider, recently released its list of Australia's most collected wines for 2016, with Penfolds far-more-affordable Bin 389 topping the list by knocking off big brother Grange after nine years in the top spot.

Wine Ark’s list of the 50 most collectable wines, released every three years, has become a “go-to” guide on the subject and the results are a clear indication of trends when it comes to cellaring.

The list presents a genuine reflection of what Australian wines are being cellared in this country in almost real time,” said wine educator Jeremy Oliver.

John Cuff, Wine Ark chief executive officer, said Penfolds Grange was arguably the most collectable Australian wine.

We know its amazing power and finesse, steeped in history; however it sells for a hefty price,” Cuff said. “The Penfolds 389 Shiraz Cabernet is considered by most collectors to be a cellar staple. I believe you would be hard pressed finding a cellar that doesn’t have at least a few bottles of 389 and our results clearly illustrate this.”

In other words, wines are being stored as much for future drinking pleasure as for investment purposes.

My advice is this: Go ahead and build your cellar; whether it is in your home, or located elsewhere. Choose enough space to assemble an interesting collection, but do not be overambitious so your collection overwhelms you, or costs more than you can afford.

It is far better to start small, choosing maybe just a few six packs of wines that you know you will enjoy over the next two or three years, and then expand slowly.

Names to consider: Clonakilla, Mount Pleasant, Tyrrell's, Best's Great Western, Wynn's Coonawarra Estate, Yalumba, Elderton and SC Pannell. And for bargain basement buys: Larry Cherubino Wines, Bleasdale, Alkoomi, and Hay Shed Hill. 

If you don’t have a lot of experience with older wines, or aren’t even sure if you like them, don't put all your vinous eggs in one basket.

Choose carefully, even buying labels that you know and trust, or select wines that have both structure and complexity. Cellar-worthy wines are usually tannic, acidic, well-structured and balanced – and usually from well-established wine regions.

There are exceptions to every rule, but in Australia reds made from shiraz and cabernet, or a combination of the two, are considered most “collectable”, while semillon, riesling and, sometimes, chardonnay, are whites that develop with age.

Right now you might enjoy wines from Australia and New Zealand, but as your budget and experience grow, there are the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and Rioja to discover. 

Independent retail stores like Five Way Cellars in Sydney, Boccaccio Cellars in Melbourne and East End Cellars in Adelaide are good sources of advice.

Campbell Mattinson, one of Australia's leading wine experts, wrote on the Wine Front website that: “When I was first buying wines to cellar I bought too many wines of the same style, and too many wines that were medium-term agers. I leant towards quantity rather than quality. Everything in life is a reaction to what has immediately come before – when I noticed my mistake, I then swung far the other way, buying a host of long term wines of high quality (and price).”

So be prepared to make mistakes, but enjoy the journey and the discoveries you will make along the way.

Or, alternatively, if you prefer wines that are young fresh and vibrant like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, you probably don't need a cellar at all. 

# This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Nourish magazine. 


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