Do as the experts say, not as they do. I'd go along with that, especially when it comes to starting a wine cellar. But wine professionals are notorious for not taking our own advice. It's a hand-to-mouth, or, should I say, tasting-to-tasting, life for most of us.
Having a haphazard few cases of wine myself, I'm thus qualified to offer advice: For a regular wine drinker, hand- to-mouth really doesn't pay. Apart from unsettling a mature wine by moving it from shop to home, it makes financial common sense to buy young wines and age them yourself. It would cost a minor fortune to go out and buy ready- to-drink, mature wines every time you had a dinner party.
If I were to start a cellar, a strictly academic exercise in view of my current bank balance, what would I buy? In this three-part series, the selections are subjective: the wines are those I would like to drink now and in the future. That's the way one should buy wine. Allowing for some experimenting and open-mindedness, wines to be laid down should suit our own tastes, entertaining styles and budget. They should not be bought as an investment for future financial gain. Nor should the choices be dictated by the press or trade critics. Newsletters, vintage reports and tasting notes are just guidelines. You're the one who has to pay for the wine -- and drink it.
My own cellar would be divided into three categories:
1. Short term: those that are ready to drink now and will hold for two years. Mostly in the inexpensive range, $4 to $8.
2. Medium term: to lay down for up to five years. Mostly moderate prices, $9 to $15
3. Long term: those that would be laid down for longer than five years. Priced upward of $15.
Like the wines themselves, a well-planned cellar needs balance. There's no point in having a rack of immature wine and nothing to drink for 10 years, or a cellarful of wines that are all going to mature at the same time. But the advice I give on the aging potential of a wine should be offset by the advice of your wine dealer, who may have tasted a sample from the actual shipment, and your own storage conditions. Which leads me to an elementary problem for those of us who've always wanted a cellar but were afraid to start: Where would I store my wines?
Whatever the textbooks say about cellar conditions is right. However, since I couldn't provide a steady 55o, dark, slightly humid, vibration-free area, the longer-term bottles would go into the quietest, darkest corner, and the shorter- term ones laid in front of them. That way, there would also be less temptation to sneak-preview a long-termer.
In a cellar, or closet, steady temperature changes from season to season are less harmful than sudden changes, or constant movement. The warmer the conditions, the quicker the maturation rate. There's no accurate measurement, but that's part of the fun of having a cellar. I'd monitor a wine's progress by trying a bottle from time to time.
Next week, ideas for the white wines in my cellar.