There are few things more awe-inspiring than a beautifully designed, well-stocked wine cellar. Like subterranean cathedrals to Bacchus, the best of the best will be excavated into the living earth, caressed with soft lighting and maintained at a constant 57º F and 50 per cent humidity. The walls will be lined with hand-polished mahogany racks, and upon these will recline 10,000 of the world’s greatest vintages, bottles that in some cases have been slumbering, Rip Van Winkle-like, for decades or more.
OK, let’s back up a bit. While every wine lover dreams of owning a deluxe cellar, most of us can’t afford it. Toronto-based writer and oenophile Irvin Wolkoff recalls that his first “cellar” was nothing more than a clutch of cardboard boxes scavenged from the LCBO, tipped sideways, and stored in a closet in his apartment. “Most of the wine made today is intended for what I call vehicular maturation,” says Wolkoff, “which means it ages in the trunk of your car for the time it takes you to drive from the liquor store to your house. For that, a dark closet that doesn’t get too much heat or vibration works just fine.”
Of course, the day may come when you want to graduate to wines that require serious aging—French and Italian vintages that are designed to mature in the bottle for years—and thus special care. Given that the four great enemies of wine are heat, light, vibration and strong odours, you’ll want a storage space that excludes these, and that requires a bit of an investment. The least expensive options—$3,000 to $5,000—include the building of a passive-cooling cellar, or the purchase of a wine cabinet or refrigerator.
In the first instance, you’ll need a basement with outside-facing walls. Ottawa-based property manager Peter Bennett built his first passive-cooling cellar in the six-sided, bunker-like area under the front porch of his bungalow. He insulated the upper sections of the walls to keep heat out, while leaving the floor and bottom part of the walls un-insulated. “Below four feet the ground remains cool, so the un-insulated bottom part of your cellar effectively becomes your cooling unit, keeping your wine at a constant temperature.” Throw in a couple inexpensive wine racks and an exterior-grade door with weather stripping, and you have a cooling cellar with no mechanical assistance.
The benefit of wine refrigerators or cabinets is that you don’t need a basement: they’re freestanding units that can be put anywhere. They come equipped with self-ventilating cooling units, carbon filters to remove odours, and insulation against vibrations. The better quality units range from $3,000 to $12,000 depending on bottle capacity and style—used models can be found online for less.
Which brings us back to the higher-end, custom-designed cellars, which can cost as much as you’re willing to pay. “The advantage of a cellar designed from scratch and dug into the ground is that it adds tremendous protection for your precious wine,” says Wolkoff.
PHOTO GALLERY: Wine cellars for every budget »
If you’re in the market for a dream cellar and have, say, $100,000 to throw around, companies like Toronto’s Rosehill Wine Cellars Inc. will come to your home and build a custom cellar to suit your whims. Common features include sophisticated cooling systems, heavy-duty insulation so that if the power goes out the room will stay cool for days and custom-built racking of the finest exotic woods.
Of course, figuring out how to stock your cellar with quality wines that age well and offer good value is an art unto itself. Quebec-based sommelier Veronique Rivest knows more about wine than pretty well anyone on the planet—including where to find the best deals. One of the tricks, says Rivest, who finished second last year at the World’s Best Sommelier competition in Tokyo, is to source wines from lesser-known areas before they become “hot” as wine-growing regions. “You’re going to pay a fortune for wines from Montrachet (Burgundy, France), but there’s another village a little higher up that has the same grape and sells for a fraction of the price.” As well, countries like Greece have little-known wines that are spectacular, and offer great value, simply because they haven’t yet been popularized.
Another tip, she says, is to track down private importers who deal with wineries too small to supply the big provincial retailers. “They’re good guys to talk to about where the good deals are. Most have websites.”
Finally, if you’re looking to buy the really good stuff, the blue-chip Burgundies and Bordeaux, as well as Chardonnays and Rieslings, be careful. “There are incredible amounts of fraud right now. If you’re going to spend the big bucks, make sure you’re talking to the right people. Ideally you’ll want to buy directly from the producer, or from a reputable collector.”
So get started. Those wines won’t cellar themselves.