Going Underground

Going Underground People & Places Articles
  • Saturday 1 March 2003

A cellar is the perfect place to store a wine collection, as long as it's dry and consistently cool, says ANDREW JEFFORD. Overleaf, NATASHA HUGHES meets a wine collector with a very damp cellar

A cellar is the perfect place to store a wine collection, as long as it's dry and consistently cool, says ANDREW JEFFORD. Overleaf, NATASHA HUGHES meets a wine collector with a very damp cellar

ANDREW JEFFORD

Let's agree on this: any sort of a cellar is better than no cellar at all. Cupboards are second-best; garages and sheds are no good; attics are a catastrophe.

The fundamental desideratum of wine storage is temperature stability. External temperatures vary from day to day; cellars buffer or (in the case of deep perfection) shield wine completely from those treacherous 5?C or 10?C swings. Bottles of wine love to be planted in the underground garden of a cellar, and, if you have one, relish your good fortune.

But then what? It's a sad fact that those of us who understand the true purpose of a cellar are in a minority. Most people view them as potential playrooms or workshops; central-heating boilers are sometimes fatally installed down there. Any source of heat in a cellar is obviously undesirable; vibrating machinery is unwelcome (evict the washing machine); and the lights should, in principle, stay switched off almost all of the time. If human beings find it pleasant to be down there, then wines will mope.

After that, though, we pursue perfection. In the last 16 years, I have lived in two houses with cellars (and one, tryingly, without). The first cellar didn't seem ideal: it wasn't deep, and the gaps between the floorboards in the room above let a dim zebra light through. It was dry, and dusty too. But it never varied by more than one half-degree Celsius from day to day; the temperature span between cold winter and warm summer was 10–12?C. I monitored wines stored there over an 11-year period, and was completely happy with the results; and my wines evolved slowly and articulately.

Now I have a deeper, darker and larger cellar, and I have just completed my first year's monitoring of its performance. The first surprise is that the temperature between winter and summer still varies, despite the fact that the bottles are six feet under in a very substantial Victorian terrace wedged into a hillside. To avoid all seasonal variations, I would guess that a cellar would have to be at least 20 feet below ground level (or, of course, air-conditioned).

More intriguingly, I have discovered that different parts of the cellar have different humidity levels. There are dry zones and wet zones. The wines themselves, and the corks, seem to prefer the wet zones. The labels, by contrast, are soon bearded and blotchy in the damp, and I would guess in five years will be totally illegible. Do I mind? Not at all; I like this tomb-worn look, and the fact that a four-year-old bottle quickly looks like one that has spent 50 winters underground. If I had any thought of eventual resale, though, this kind of visual spoilage would be disastrous. All the more expensive wines, therefore, I keep in the dry zones (you never know what lies ahead).

Another issue is that of air circulation. The cellar doesn't have enough and if I had any spare money I would get someone to rectify the problem with more air bricks. It can give the cellar a close, faintly mouldy odour. I've never found even the faintest trace of this in the wines themselves, though, and even a single daily journey down into the cellar helps dissipate it.

Anything else? Well, there was a plague of woodlice down there when I arrived. I carried them all outside to begin new lives in the garden, and they haven't been back. Overall, then, consider me a very happy cellar owner. The following pages show that the perfect cellar can take some work, but my message is that any sort of unheated, unlit cellar makes great wine-storage. Finding the cellar-endowed house in the first place, though, was a nine-month struggle. If you happen to run a large house-building company and are poring over new designs, please don't forget this space-saving, wine-friendly (and, if you must, multi-purpose) underground room.

NATASHA HUGHES -

Publisher Clare Seel had been house-hunting for some time before she finally found the flat of her dreams. It was in the right area, spacious and light and, best of all, it had a 7x2 m cellar. 'For me, the cellar was one of the flat's key selling points,' she explains, 'as I'm a keen amateur enthusiast and it would finally give me room to expand my collection.'

However, not long after Seel had moved in, she became aware that her dream cellar needed some work before it could house her treasured wine collection. Like many of London's Victorian conversions, the basement was exhibiting all the signs of a damp problem.

DAMPENED SPIRITS

'I had a vision of inviting my friends over for dinner,' she says, 'and bringing bottles up from my cellar – but it rather takes the edge off the glamour when you have to scrape the mould off the labels first.' There was some good news, though: 'At least the temperature seems to be fairly consistent,' says Seel with a shrug.

It was time to call in the experts. Before adequate storage could be sorted out, the priority was to fix the structural problems and get rid of the damp. Noel Bell of Cellar Conversions paid Seel a visit. An hour or so later and Bell had come up with a range of constructive suggestions to improve matters. The first thing he pointed out was that the basement space currently had a very low ceiling, and he proposed that a trench should be dug to maximise the headroom.

Next, a sump pit would be dug and a pump installed to get rid of any ground water seeping in from the porous clay soil outside. With the water drained away, the final step would be to tank out the walls and floor, ensuring that, in the future, the cellar would remain damp-free.

Having dealt with the major issue, it was time to work out how to turn the once-soggy cellar into an ideal space to store wine. A conditioning unit that would control both temperature and humidity was due to be installed later in the conversion programme, and Bell said that the stairs would need repositioning to make room, drawing up plans for new ones made out of quality timber.

Insulation plays a vital role in ensuring that a constant temperature is maintained. A plan was drawn up to ensure that the ceiling and walls would play their part, while the door would be hermetically sealed with strips of rubber.

With the structural work complete, it was time to move on to the most exciting part of the project, designing a storage system that would house Seel's growing collection. 'At the moment I've got more bottles than cases,' she explains, 'but now that I've got the space I would like to change the balance.'

Accordingly, David James of EuroCave suggested that the maximum storage capacity could be achieved by splitting the area in half, allocating one side of the room to bottles and the other to cases. A Modulorack system housing 42 cases would be set up along the west wall while, opposite, the Modulothèque would provide ample space for 500 bottles.

'I'm delighted,' says Seel, 'as what Eurocave proposes would make it so much easier for me to manage my collection. Wines I intend to drink straight away will be placed in the racks nearest the door, while those meant for ageing can lie undisturbed further along the rows.'

STACKING UP

Both 'thèque and 'rack are made out of solid oak, a natural material known for its ability to withstand humidity, with fittings in aluminium, a corrosion-resistant metal. Unlike conventional racks, both systems have sliding drawers, making it easy for Seel to find bottles or cases. In addition, the Modulothèque's shelves are adapted to a range of bottle shapes and sizes, so Seel can pick and choose between those shaped for Bordeaux, Alsace and Champagne bottles, as well as magnums. 'There's even one we call universal,' says James, 'which works particularly well with Burgundies.'

James also recommended the installation of an EuroCave CL-A Conditioning Unit. This small (45cm3) wall-mounted unit performs the vital function of maintaining the cellar at a constant temperature and humidity, as well as circulating the air in the room. As for the annual running costs, James says: 'they're not much more expensive to run than your average fridge freezer'.

With the hard work over, Seel is eagerly looking forward to stocking her new cellar with her latest purchases.

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