A good fine wine cellar is kept consistently cool with no daylight – perfect conditions for wine storage. JOHN STIMPFIG looks at the options.
The received wisdom about the optimum temperature conditions for long-term, fine wine maturation is clear, if not entirely unequivocal. According to the vinous bible, The Oxford Companion to Wine, ‘dramatic temperature swings should be avoided, and an average temperature somewhere in the range of 10–15˚C (50–59˚F) is considered suitable.’ Derek Smedley MW, wine consultant and honorary cellarer at the Institute of Masters of Wine is even more precise on the subject: ‘The ideal, classic cellar temperature is 11–13˚C.’ So it came as something of a surprise to learn that only one in three of the largest and best-known commercial fine wine cellaring operations in the UK operate within this ‘ideal’ temperature range. For part of the year, a second falls within the ‘suitable’ range, while a third is beyond the pale all year round. In which case, if you have your wine stored at Octavian, you may now exhale a sigh of relief. However, if your precious cargo is in storage at London City Bond or Trapps Cellars, you may well be interested in the following findings.
Octavian’s deep underground cellars (it is a former mine and MOD munitions dump) in Wiltshire are distinctly chilly kept at a constant winter/summer temperature of 12–13˚C. This contrasts sharply with a damp, humid but comparatively warm Trapps Cellars, underneath the railway arches at London Bridge, where the average temperature is around 18˚C. According to Trapps’ director, John Davis, ‘there is a one percent variation either side. Occasionally, though, it can go up to 20˚C.’
Finally, over to the East End and London City Bond (LCB), where its designated fine wine warehouses, which are insulated and above ground, had the same temperature as Trapps when I visited on a rainy day in August. In contrast to Trapps though, LCB’s warehouses experience greater seasonal temperature fluctuation. Jeremy Pearson, LCB’s director, points out that this can drop to 10˚C in winter and rise to 18˚C or 19˚C in summer.
The question is: what to make of these temperatures? In particular, what effects are the warmer, more variable conditions in Trapps and LCB having on the boxes of Pétrus, Grange, Sassicaia and co which lie undisturbed, possibly for decades, in these cellars? And what about the other important conditions which fine wines require such as sufficient humidity, coupled with a lack of light and vibration? None of these was a problem with the three operators. For instance, Octavian, LCB and Trapps are all steering a sensible middle course between too much humidity and too little. The former is good for corks and therefore wine, while the latter is bad for labels and cases. These days, many collectors like labels in pristine condition rather than swimming off the bottle. Similarly, vibration isn’t a problem, even at Trapps with its location under London Bridge Station. And daylight is rigorously excluded from all three sites. An article in The Daily Telegraph last year suggested that LCB was letting light into one of its fine wine warehouses. In fact, the light was on a different floor to the one on which customer reserves were kept.
Which brings us back to whether wines costing hundreds of pounds per case should be experiencing seasonal variations of 10–18˚C at LCB or a constant 18˚C at Trapps. To quote The Oxford Companion again: ‘A fairly wide range of temperatures is suitable for wine storage, although, in general, the lower the storage temperature, the slower the reactions involved in wine maturation and, the theory goes, the more complex the wine eventually.’ As this doesn’t entirely answer my question, I put it to Derek Smedley. ‘I wouldn’t be that happy if I had a very expensive wine being stored at 18˚C for a long time. I don’t think it would damage the wine, but it could speed up its maturation,’ he replied.And there’s the rub. An awful lot of expensive wine is being stored at these temperatures for long periods of time. Trapps, for instance, is currently storing 120,000 cases worth £50 million. Although some belongs to trade customers (and is therefore being moved in and out quite quickly), a significant amount is in long-term storage for private customers. LCB handles 850 trade clients (including the likes of Michael Morgan, Uvine and Christie’s) but also has about 3,000 private customers who store 200,000 cases of fine wine in its long-term warehouses. Should these private customers be worried? Not according to Jeremy Pearson or John Davis. Indeed, Pearson argues that the temperatures quoted do no harm at all. ‘What damages wine is short-term, day-to-day temperature fluctuations which don’t occur in our fine wine warehouses. We rely on the fabric of the building to keep the wines in the best condition. Both warehouses in question are fully insulated to prevent any sudden variation. As a result, the temperature of the wine inside the cases barely changes.’ One of LCB’s two fine wine warehouses is an old chill store in Barking that now holds all of Corney & Barrow’s customer reserves. C&B’s Adam Brett-Smith gives the facility a ringing endorsement: ‘It’s a wonderful place for wine storage and we show clients round all the time.’ The Sunday Times also has a dedicated warehouse at LCB and a few years ago Bibendum took the decision to move its customer reserves out of Octavian and place them with LCB. More recently, Bibendum recommended that all its customers should open their own individual accounts with LCB. But most now regard Octavian as the best long-term storage option for fine wines. Paul Bowker of Wilkinson Vintners recommends Octavian to private clients who want to cellar wine for the long haul. ‘The conditions are perfect, the security is first rate, they offer next-day delivery and the feedback from clients is that the range and quality of service is impeccable. However, Octavian is more expensive than Trapps and LCB.’ Despite the cost and inconvenience of storing in Corsham rather than London, many trade customers based in the capital are also moving their wine over to Octavian. Farrs, for instance, used to store with Trapps but has just shifted all its wine to Wiltshire. Other trade clients at Octavian include Sotheby’s, Justerini & Brooks, Cave Cru Classé and Goodhuis. In total, it boasts about 300 trade clients and 1,300 private customers. In volume terms, that amounts to about 700,000 cases, worth a cool £150 million, maturing in a site the size of 16 soccer pitches.
Octavian has installed a sophisticated, computerised air-flow system to control both humidity and temperature. ‘About 10 years ago, we spent £2 million to upgrade our facilities here. In 1991, we had about 110,000 cases of wine here. Since then it’s increased sevenfold, so the upgrade clearly paid off,’ says Laurie Greer, operations director. In fact, Octavian, which is part of the CERT Group, has almost been too successful. For part of 2001 the site was full to bursting and was turning new private clients away. But it has now made space above ground for distribution, allowing more space below. Other operators have also installed temperature and humidity controls in their cellars. The smaller, specialist firm of Smith & Taylor in London offers duty-paid storage in temperature-controlled cellar box deposits which hold up to 60 cases. The building is above ground, but the temperature remains at a constant 13˚C thanks to its cooling system. According to Smith & Taylor’s director, Sebastian Riley-Smith: ‘While the larger warehouses are driven by throughput, our business is more geared to wine staying put.’ In the US, a shortage of suitable storage capacity in several cities, including New York, is creating a small but growing market for specialist operators. As a result, several companies are offering fine wine aficionados the opportunity to rent temperature-controlled lockers and warehousing space above and below ground. New York’s Morgan Manhattan provides two purpose-built vaults with ‘a constant temperature of 13˚C and 68% humidity’. On the West Coast, Seattle Wine Storage operates a small below-ground facility at similar temperature and humidity levels, with self-service lockers ranging in size from six cases up to 1,000.
The UK has also seen some interesting storage developments. Several merchants are now reverting back to laying down customers’ wines in their own ‘cellars’ rather than contracting out the service to third party operators. But perhaps what is most significant is that merchants such as Berry Bros & Rudd, The Wine Society and Laytons have taken the costly decision to build above-ground, temperature-controlled facilities rather than rely on the more traditional methods of fabric insulation. The obvious catch here is that this storage is strictly for customer reserves bought directly from the merchant in question. But, as a customer, it is highly desirable and cost-effective to keep your wine under these optimum conditions.
BBR, for instance, has about 30,000 cases of customer stocks, which are stored either duty paid or under bond. The temperature is set at 11˚C while humidity hovers around 60%. The company keeps all its customer reserves separate from its own stock. All BBR’s records are computerised and it only charges delivery for wines under £100. The cost of this service is £7.20 per case per annum, which includes insurance at full replacement value. With the annual invoice comes a full inventory, together with recommendations on optimum drinking times. For merchants, like Alun Griffiths at BBR, the benefits are clear. ‘It means we can sometimes buy back the wine from customers, secure in the knowledge that it has been stored in ideal conditions. For our clients, we think it offers peace of mind and perfect provenance. Storage conditions can really influence a wine’s development, quality and price.’There are some people who are lucky to live in houses with cellars that are dank, dark and chilly enough to replicate ideal storage conditions. Depending on the size of your collection, dearer alternatives include buying one or more EuroCaves or Vintec ‘fridges’, or custom building your own cellar. But don’t, whatever you do, age fine wine over extended periods in the garage or in equally unsuitable indoor conditions with fluctuating temperatures. That is asking for trouble.
With older, valuable wines always arrange for a condition report before storage begins.
Always insure your wine at the full replacement cost.
If you intend to sell or move your wine from country to country, keep it under bond to avoid paying VAT.
Check your wine. Make sure each of your cases has a form of identification – either your name and/or a rotation number.
Make sure your wine is being securely stored in satisfactory conditions.
If you live abroad and want to see your wine without visiting it, storage operators like LCB and Octavian can email you digital images.
Written by JOHN STIMPFIG