- Wednesday 11 February 2004
While 2003’s unusually hot summer was welcomed by sun worshippers, it was a nightmare for wine lovers without temperature-controlled storage for their wines. Anyone keeping their collection at home in poor storage conditions will have risked cooking their precious bottles as temperatures soared to record levels.
If you are one of the unlucky ones whose wine was warmed in this way, how much damage, if any, will have been done? It’s hard to say. Despite the importance of this subject to the wine trade, there’s an almost complete lack of proper scientific studies on the effects of different storage conditions. All we are left with are anecdotal observations, and educated guesswork based on how heat and light affect chemical reactions in general. As a result, it’s just not possible to say how much damage will be done to your case of 1996 Lafite by exposing it to a temperature of 35?C for a week.
What we do know is that wine ages superbly in the type of conditions found in underground cellars, and in the absence of proper scientific studies it seems wise to replicate this environment as closely as possible for healthy wine storage.
Of course, you don’t have to keep your wine at home. A number of companies will cellar it for you. Anyone buying with resale in mind would be advised to keep their wine with a recognised wine storage company, but for wines intended for consumption, off-site storage can have drawbacks. First, it requires careful planning.
You can’t just pop in and retrieve the bottles you want. Then there are delivery charges each time you put wine in or take it out. Coupled with the annual storage charges, these soon mount up. A further factor is that if you take a case of wine out and intend drinking it over an extended period, you’ll still require some sort of home storage facility.
As a result, where space affords, most wine lovers prefer to keep some or all of their wine at home. There are various options for storage across a range of budgets. Overleaf we look at the pros and cons of different solutions.
When people start thinking about storing wine, their first thought is usually simple enough: ‘Buy a wine cabinet.’ These come in a variety of shapes, sizes and finishes and represent the simplest option for home storage. They are more than just glorified refrigerators: in addition to maintaining a steady optimal temperature, the compressors are damped or housed separately to reduce vibration, they keep high humidity, and some of the more expensive models also have heating units in case the ambient temperature drops too low.
If you are considering going down the cabinet route, some things to bear in mind: Where are you going to keep it? If it’s in the garage or a utility room then the finish isn’t crucial, but in a living area you want it to look right and operate quietly. And what sort of capacity do you want? 150 bottles might sound a lot to someone new to wine, but it really doesn’t take long to accumulate double this quantity.
At under £1,000, options are fairly limited. This sort of budget will buy you a large unit from a cheaper manufacturer, or a smaller capacity cabinet from one of the more upmarket producers.
Liebehrr makes an extensive range of affordable cabinets which have a good reputation for quality, and whose prices are attractive. The most popular unit is the WKR 4176 which has a maximum capacity of 180 Bordeaux-sized bottles and which I’ve seen for sale as cheaply as £659 on internet comparison shopping sites. Some might prefer a stainless steel finish, which comes at a premium of £200+, as opposed to the default Burgundy red. Fridge manufacturer Miele makes a similar cabinet which sells at around the same price.
While they offer excellent value, there are two potential drawbacks with the Liebherr and Miele units. Firstly, because of their depth – the same as a domestic fridge – the bottles can’t overlap neatly at the neck. As a result the capacity is reduced compared with a similar size, purpose-built wine cabinet. A second drawback is that the compressor isn’t designed for operation at an ambient temperature lower than 8ºC, so these cabinets can’t be used in an unheated garage or outbuilding.
Also in this price bracket are the Vintec cabinets, which are distributed by Vin Garde. The range includes smaller units specially designed to fit under worktops in fitted kitchens. Although they’ve only just been launched in the UK, Vin Garde reports that demand is very strong. Particularly elegant is a stainless steel fronted model, priced at £899. It fits some 50 bottles and also offers dual temperature zones. The Corner Fridge Company also sells a range of under-the-counter units, including a fully integrated model.
You might think that for this sort of money you’d be looking at more than a cabinet. Alas, you’d be wrong, though the choice expands a fair bit.
Eurocave offers a wide, high-quality range with a variety of finish options. Their dimensions are such that bottles can overlap neatly at the neck, which increases capacity. You can opt for smoked glass doors for a more elegant look – this costs a little extra – or even go for a stainless steel finish, which bumps up the price considerably. Eurocave’s main competitor is Transtherm (available from Vin Garde), whose cabinets offer similar quality and finish options for around the same price. Other cabinets in this price bracket worth considering include models by U-line and The Corner Fridge Company.
It’s worth bearing in mind that with wine cabinets, there are different combinations of shelving available, with a trade-off between capacity and convenience. The most efficient use of space is achieved by stacking bottles on top of each other in a way that makes it tricky to access those at the bottom. To avoid awkward rummaging around when sourcing that elusive bottle, store according to projected drinking windows – wines for near term consumption on one shelf, those that need another year or two on the second and so on. If you have a number of bottles of one wine you might put one on each shelf so as to follow its progress as it matures.
If space and budget permit, now’s the time to think about constructing your own cellar, using modified air conditioning units designed to operate at lower temperatures. There are a number of ways of doing this. If your DIY is up to it, you can build one yourself. You’d need to partition off a suitable space with stud walls, insulate it properly, add a vapour barrier and then put in a suitable conditioning unit. There are a number of these on the market, including the Fondis ‘Winemaster’ range (available from Vin Garde and The Corner Fridge Company, from £1,369) and a range from Eurocave (from £1,930). The classic reference work for this sort of cellar construction is Richard Gold’s How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar (Wine Appreciation Guild).
If this all seems a bit complicated, then there are companies which will do the whole installation for you. The Corner Fridge Company is one of these. Not surprisingly, managing director Irwen Martin reckons it’s a cost-effective solution: ‘My experience is that wine collecting is addictive, and whatever space you think you will need, you’ll have to double it,’ he says. Martin reckons that if you took off 1.5 metre from the back wall of your garage, this would make room for 1,000 or more bottles for a similar price per bottle as cabinet storage. (Make sure your garage is secure if you are going to store your precious collection here.) Apex manufactures, designs and installs custom-built cellar racking. Although it normally supplies this for existing cellars, the firm can also build and install cellars.
A slightly different take on the walk-in cellar comes from Vinosafe. It offers kits for assembling walk-in cellars, distributed in the UK by Vin Garde and Vinosafe. These modular cellars are pretty straightforward to assemble – ‘a 12 year old child could do it’ says Vin Garde’s Roy Wilson – and keep good temperature and humidity levels. They are 1.6 m wide and can be made to any length, holding from 680 to 4,000 bottles.
Prices range from £5,400 to £13,000.
Another ingenious option is the spiral cellar. This is a solid concrete cylinder, sunk into the ground and with access through a trapdoor. Two metres wide, the cellar comes in depths of 2, 2.25, 2.5 and 3m and holds up to 1,600 bottles. They are commonly fitted in garages and conservatories. There are two big advantages here. Firstly, they don’t take up any living space. Secondly, they are passive cellars, relying on the fact that the temperature just below the ground in the UK hovers around 10 ºC and with several tons of concrete surrounding the wines, fluctuations are kept to a minimum. This means that there are no moving parts to go wrong, nor any electricity bills. The most popular installation is a 2sqm cellar holding 1,000 bottles, at £7,299. It takes four days to fit.
One factor to consider if you’re thinking of constructing a walk-in or spiral cellar is that you can’t take it with you when you move. So it’s worth considering whether it will add to the value of your home if you’re likely to be selling in the short or medium term. This will depend on the area and the size of your house. If you live in a suitably upmarket location then potential buyers might consider a cellar an asset. But if you live in a small suburban terrace and you’ve hived off part of the kitchen for wine storage, you might struggle to recoup the investment.
Jamie Goode is publisher of wineanorak.com