Article By: David Singer
A story in the Wine Spectator a couple of years ago makes me chuckle every time I think about it. It concerns Joe the Wine Geek, his wife and their wine cellar. After a few incidents involving his wife when Joe wasn't around, like when she opened a $3OO bottle of Le Montrachet and added ice to it because it wasn't cold enough, he decided to color code all the bottles. It was a simple code that made it plain for all who looked at it. The first color was green. These wines were fair game at anytime; quality, everyday drinking wines to be consumed at will. Next in line was yellow. Much like moving from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 3, this was a serious jump. Yellow meant: Call me before you open. Lastly, the bright unmistakable red was: If you open, we're divorced.
Joe's color-coding system is amusing, but it also signifies a shift in philosophy - moving his wine collection from a random assortment of bottles to a structured collection. I often meet people who are in similar states of transition. They're interested in wine, have begun to accumulate bottles of wines they enjoy, and would like to start a personal wine cellar. If you're reading this article, you might be in the same situation. So what should you consider in starting a personal wine cellar? Like anything else there are many different aspects to consider. The logistics of storage, for example, including: location, how to temperature control, racking, using a wine fridge, and, if so which brand to buy and how many bottles should it store? While these topics all have merit, I want to look at the more enjoyable part of building a cellar: buying.
Not to point out the obvious but, starting a cellar should be a lot of fun. Buying and cellaring wine need not be an expensive hobby to be rewarding. Time and a good dose of passion are paramount. It's also important to build relationships with the people from whom you buy, and most likely receive advice. Hopefully you already have a favorite wine shop with some knowledgeable people working there who are just as "bitten by the grape" as you are. Pull them into the fun with you. I'd also say up front that you should look at, but then look beyond, the latest ratings in order to build a well-rounded cellar. For example, if you are anything like me, at certain times of the year you're in the mood for different styles and colors of wine. Or maybe you have certain regular dinner guests with very particular tastes. Having the right kind of wine on hand when the mood strikes or that picky dinner guest around is worth its weight in gold instead of running to the wine store, if it's still open.
Beyond having these essential bottles on hand, the easiest way to think about structuring your cellar is by looking at color first, followed by varietals. I'll start with sparkling wine and Champagne. Always having a few bottles of your favorite non-vintage producer is a good idea and maybe a bottle or two of a prestige cuvee or simply the top-of-the-line from that house. Rose is good to have for some delicious food pairings such as salmon or beef. For everyday drinking take a look at Cava, Prosecco or Cremant, of which I have been very impressed with the offerings from Alsace lately, and of course California sparkling. If you have bottles that cover this spectrum, you'll have a well-rounded collection of bubbly.
Moving to white wine, there are three grapes on which I'd suggest you focus as a start: Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. There are lots of other white grapes out there, but these will give you a strong foundation in starting a cellar. Chardonnay is a good way to start withinteresting variations to consider from arguably the world's most famous grape. The most common style to the majority of North Americans is the stereotypical Chardonnay from California: lots of oak that is rich and buttery and always a crowd pleaser. At the other end of the spectrum is Chardonnay from cool climates without oak, most notably from parts of Burgundy, like Chablis, where some producers make wine without any oak at all, and New Zealand, where the fruit is a little bit richer and the wine can also be made in the non-oaked style. Clean and pure with pear and minerals, this style is worthy of attention and a slot or two in your cellar racks.
Then there's Riesling. From its slightly sweet styles to the bone dry and dessert offerings, no cellar is complete without wine's longest-lived grape. Germany, Austria, France, Washington, and Australia are the key countries to look at for wines in a range of budgets and for both short and long term cellaring.
Sauvignon Blanc is another varietal with myriad styles to look at. Most of these are short term, but a few of the wines from better producers do benefit from a few years of cellaring. Sauvignon Blanc put New Zealand on the map of the wine world and it keeps on getting better. The Loire Valley and white Bordeaux is where most of the longer term cellaring potential is found from top producers of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. White Bordeaux is generally a mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and sometimes Muscadelle, and is fascinating to taste at different points in its life, to see how it evolves. From the bright grassy citrus in a very young bottle to round, rich wax fruit notes in one kept awhile longer in the cellar, these wines are well worth seeking out. The best producers can age for ten years or more. Be sure to look at the bright clean styles from northeastern Italy and the oaked styles from California.
There are also three categories of reds I'd suggest you consider as a cellar foundation. And if we're moving "Sideways" into reds, how can we not start with Pinot Noir? No greater burgundy has come close to the market presence reached in North America than the aforementioned movie. And about time too. Burgundy is the benchmark for all Pinot Noirs, but the lush style of Napa along with the cooler climate influenced wines of Southern California, Oregon and New Zealand are long overdue to be noticed by the general public.
The second category for reds would be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Though different grapes, they should be mentioned together as they are so often blended together. It is rare to find either of these grapes from any country making wine with 1OO% of one of these grapes. Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet are great places to start this section of a cellar. Some suggestions to look at are Fronsac and Cotes de Castillon for very good short term cellaring wines. For Cabernet, if you haven't looked at Washington for all levels of wine you are missing out.
Third in the reds, the "Rhone" varieties can easily be spoken about at the same time. Syrah, Shiraz, Grenache, and Mouvedre being the most commonly used as the primary grape, alone or within a blend. The main notables of this style are the fashionable appellations in Rhone like Hermitage and Chateauneuf. In the New World, Shiraz from Oz certainly can be thought of as the leader in this grape in any level. Southern California has been a haven for these grapes for years and many of the "Rhone Rangers" make some topnotch wine from Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
Last, but not least, dessert wine that can be cellared is almost an article in and of itself. There are late harvest styles, Icewine, Tokaji, fortified wines including port and Madeira, the list goes on and on. Some of the most rewarding for long term cellaring, in that you can taste the evolution of the wine if you open bottles of the same vintage at different times, are Tokaji, Port, Sauternes, and late harvest styles from Germany, Austria and Alsace. Buy a selection of these to round out your cellar, and drink your dessert from time to time.