Room at the bottom
- Friday 9 December 2005
Cellars are as individual as their keepers. Depending on one’s approach to wine, they can range from the purely functional to the more ostentatious. There are no real restrictions on size and space, but if
you want to store a decent number of bottles, you’ll need a room that provides the appropriate volume. Most cellar designers enjoy the challenge of space, but do not expect them to work miracles in a cupboard-sized coal-shute.
Many modern houses have basements or cooler rooms, such as pantries and utility rooms, that can be easily converted to hold several hundred bottles. As long as the cellar doesn’t get too hot or the temperature doesn’t change suddenly, your treasures will not be undrinkable when you come to open them.
The first part of the process is to consider what kind of a wine-keeper you are.
‘I see my market as threefold,’ says Sebastian Riley-Smith of cellar maker Smith & Taylor. ‘There are the real wine lovers, there are those who buy for investment, and then there are those who I call the “ego” buyers, who invest in a cellar as a status symbol.’
Of course, you could be a bit of all three, in varying degrees. It is worth remembering that if you like to show off your wines, you are unlikely to want to store them in their original wooden cases. Cellar for investment, however, and you will want to do precisely that. Therefore, before they begin to design the racking, cellarmakers will ask what kind of cellar you’d like.
Different types of racking are numerous, from diamond bins that hold a dozen bottles each, to individual bottle slots, known as ladders, that can line a wall. If you’re more of an investor, you’ll want larger, oblong racks that can hold one or more 12-bottle cases. If you want to display that pristine magnum of Palmer ’61 and its friends, you’ll want large-format, open racking.
Lighting can even come into it, with a whole range of low-heat-emitting lights. Further considerations include the type and colour of the wood for the racking – if wood is your material of choice, that is. Malaysian mahogany might send the ‘ego’ cellarer’s heart
a-fluttering, but the dark wood risks upstaging the wines themselves. Some cellar designers even propose a 3D, computer-generated ‘walkaround’.
Obviously, your choice will reflect the eventual price of your cellar. The more basic design will set you back around £5,000, more or less. The more expensive designs, such as a walk-in, fully lit, cellar-cum-tasting-room, will go into six figures. It goes without saying that if you’ve got a big enough budget, the earth’s core is your limit. ‘Nothing is out of bounds,’ says Chris Baranowski of Apex Cellars UK.
But before you make that call to the guys with the drawing boards and ideas, it might be best to have a quick check down in your cellar-to-be. The best cellars are large, dark, airy underground rooms. Ideally, it will be ‘tanked’ or insulated from groundwater and flooding by a special render. If you find yourself having to wear Wellington boots at every foray into your basement, it might be best to get in touch with cellar-tanking specialists through the Yellow Pages.
Also bear in mind that if you’re in an area with a high water table – that fault line between London clay and Bagshot sands can cause a real headache – tanking will be ineffective, and pumps and reservoirs will have to come into the equation.
In the London area, quite a few people are converting spaces under the pavement that were originally built as coal cellars. This is practical and ideal as a storage space, but a lot of preparation work is involved and the space can be quite limited for a large collection. Also, there’s no point getting the floors and walls of a cellar covered in rendering if your wine rack is going to be drilled into it by the people fitting your cellar.
Reputable cellar designers tend to know the right people for the job – so it’s a good idea to talk to them before you call in the builders. ‘We have contacts with both builders and cellar tankers,’ says Baranowski.
But I don’t have any undergound space, I hear you protest. Don’t despair. Make some. Yes, it is possible to dig your own. Spiral Cellars is one company that specialises in this. Using an ergonomically pleasing concept first developed in France by a certain Georges Harnois in 1978, a cylindrical hole is dug into the ground beneath your home. This can be located almost anywhere, from the garage to the shed, and there is no loss of household storage space. The walls of the hole are built with recessed concrete ‘hives’ for the wines to be stored in, and a spiral staircase runs down the middle.
It might not be worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo, but it’s all finished off with a suitably impressive trap door, ensuring a cachet of secrecy and mystery for dinner guests and offspring alike. Spiral cellars can vary in size, generally from 2–3m deep, and have the capacity to hold between 1,000 and 1,600 bottles. They range in price from £10,200 to £13,200.
The only other consideration – apart from what you’re actually going to fill it with – is how long the cellar will take to install. Spiral Cellars says it can get a cellar completed from scratch in five days. The more bespoke cellar may take a little longer, with most cellar conversion companies quoting between four to eight weeks from agreed design to final installation.
In this age, that may seem like a
long time to wait for your ideal cellar, but if you’re that impatient, you might be better off steering clear of ageing wine altogether.