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Cellaring tips for collectors

You’ve got some Meursault stashed away and it needs drinking up, but where on earth did you put it – maybe behind those cases of Brunello under the stairs? Time to get yourself organised and restore order to those wine racks. Jane Anson seeks advice from three experts.

Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Decanter.

I spent a morning with one of the world’s most obsessive and prolific collectors of wine. It was a fascinating yet disorienting experience. Here was a man with 40,000 bottles in his cellar, but who hadn’t drunk any of them for more than 20 years. His collecting had clearly affected his life in a major way – one of his anecdotes was that he bought a case of Quinta do Noval’s Nacional 1963 for 10,000 francs (about £1,000 in today’s money) at a time in his life when he earned 5,000 francs annually. Crazy perhaps, but of course he could pretty much name his price for that case today, such is the demand and reverence surrounding it. Not that he would ever sell it, it turns out, as he hopes one day to gift his entire collection to the French nation.

A more understandable approach is that of Decanter’s Steven Spurrier, whose Dorset cellar I visited a few years ago and still counts as one of the most enticing I’ve seen. Spurrier has 3,500 bottles stored there, and he estimates that he opens about 300 a year. ‘So I have 12 years of stock even if I never again buy a single bottle, which would take me to 85 years old. I don’t mind dying with a full cellar,’ he says. ‘André Simon apparently had just one bottle of Champagne in his cellar when he died – very well organised of him – but I wouldn’t like to leave a messy range of wines.’

So, two collectors with vastly different cellars; one that never plans to open another bottle, the other who intends to steadily enjoy as much as he can. I know which approach I would rather take, but the point is that it can be tough to give advice on how anyone should manage their wine cellar, because there’s no such thing as a typical collector.

Maureen Downey, cellar expert at Chai Consulting of San Francisco, estimates that there are thousands of serious collectors in the UK, with estimates worldwide hovering somewhere around one million. Cellar management software system CellarTracker – which can also integrate with your Decanter Premium subscription – has 345,000 subscribers based mainly in the US, which gives you a clue to how big the market must be globally. Some will have traditional dusty underground cellars, others might have stacks of bottles under the stairs, others will use professional storage facilities such as Octavian or Crown Cellars while others – like the writers of the Drops of God manga Yuko and Shin Kibayashi – might even have bought a separate apartment specifically to store their collection.

If there is one thing that they do have in common, it will surely be a nagging feeling that they really should get to grips with it all. Most are not collecting to make money. Far more typical are the wine lovers who have bought for the pleasure of owning specific bottles by producers that they love and admire. But no matter how many bottles, or how much value is tied up in them, at some point every wine collector has to think about when to pull the cork.

Spurrier suggests that when planning a typical wine cellar, thinking 10 years ahead is a good place to start. ‘One has to realise that one can only drink what is in the cellar, so if you are over-stocked in Bordeaux and have to drink it, this will stop you drinking all manner of other red wines, which is surely the whole point in having a cellar in the first place.’

Nick Martin of peer-to-peer trading exchange Wine Owners knows from his own experience that unless you keep a handle on your collection it can become unmanageable. ‘When I had enough disposable income to buy wine, I started to gradually collect, then became a bit more strategic; a bit more obsessive. I kept them all at home at first, not particularly well stored, under the stairs. But by the mid-1990s I started to use external storage facilities on the basis that I had enough wine at home to drink, so should store some in bond. I had different wines in different places and it became difficult to keep track. I then created a bigger cellar at home to give me access to a broader range of wines. I think this is a typical journey – a moment of realisation that there is more to this stuff than meets the eye, certainly once you have reached the point of buying more than you can drink in a week or a month or a year. And that’s when you need a system.’

So is there a good way to ensure our cellars grow old gracefully?

Buy enough of the right wine

‘This is entirely personal,’ says Downey, ‘but I’d always suggest buying three to six bottles of anything that is ageworthy. Have one in its youth before it shuts down, then wait two to five years depending on the wine and have another, then wait again and taste it when it has aged. This way the enthusiast can truly appreciate a wine throughout its evolution and understand the nuances of ageing.’

But that doesn’t apply to all wines, and especially not if you don’t have storage at home. Martin sees an issue with buying wine early that is too cheap. ‘However inexpensive your favourite cru bourgeois might be, it’s not worth it if you are then storing the wine off-site. By the time it’s ready to drink in seven years’ time, the charges for storage will cancel out any cost savings.’

Don’t lose track of inventory

Martin points out that wine collectors often don’t apply the same rigour that they might do to other, non-wine-related investments, so they tend to have a broad view of what they have, rather than a precise current view. ‘Personally I always knew that I was slightly disorganised about my cellar,’ says Martin, ‘and I’d end up reviewing it when it suited me, rather than when it needed it.’

Downey says this is a key issue: ‘A cellar is unmanageable when you no longer know what is in there, usually because the boxes or racks are piled high and are blocking the ones at the back.’ When it gets to the point that wines are regularly getting past their best before being opened, it is really time to get organised. And even if tastes and preferences have changed, there are always people out there who would be happy to give a bottle some love.

You need to look at what is in your cellar annually at the very least. Twice a year is better. If there are items in danger of expiring, either drink them, gift them or throw a party. Keeping the inventory online with systems like VinCellar, Tagawine or CellarTracker makes the whole thing far easier.

Don’t buy too much of any one vintage or category

Overbuying one particular style or vintage is always an issue. Downey sees a fairly typical linear progression to collecting, by which you progress from bigger ‘accessible’ wines, then head towards an appreciation for delicacy and finesse. ‘If one collects long enough, one will end up with Burgundy and the great German Rieslings, enjoying wines with significant age,’ Downey says. ‘It is pretty standard the world over. So when a collector is beginning, I suggest buying modestly for a few years as tastes develop and education expands.’

At the other extreme, very knowledgeable collectors can go wild in a particular vintage. While 2009 was wonderful in many parts of France, a 65-year-old does not need 4,000 bottles of 2009 red Burgundy. ‘This is an actual scenario we had with a client who hired us to balance his collection,’ says Downey. ‘Even if he had children to pass the collection on to, it would take almost 11 years, drinking one bottle every day, to get through that amount!’

Don’t be held to ransom by merchants

Another way to avoid having an unbalanced cellar is to remember that you’re the one footing the bill, so don’t get talked into making unnecessary purchases. If a merchant says that in order to get what you want, you have to buy other wines as well, walk away and find someone else, or hire someone to help you get only the collection that you want. In today’s global marketplace, no one should have to buy extra or unwanted items. ‘People tend to be sold wine according to an annual calendar that suits everyone on the supply side,’ says Martin. ‘And in the bad old days, allocations meant other wines were tied in – again all about the merchant, not the customer.’

Use simple tricks to help you stay on top of things

There is one very simple rule to follow when collecting wine, whatever your age: be organised. Decide whether you will approach wine by grape variety or by region, and store accordingly. Downey suggests organising wines going from oldest (closest to the ground) to youngest (closest to the ceiling), for the simple reason that it is colder at the bottom of the room by a few degrees, and that can make a difference for very old wines.

Don’t only buy en primeur

It has become increasingly obvious that en primeur is not necessarily the best time to buy wine: if you bought 2010 as futures, you are very likely to have lost money. What’s more, in good campaigns, it is too easy to get swept up in the excitement and buy more of one particular wine or style than you really need.

Plenty of smart collectors are starting to look to Argentina, Spain, California, Sicily and other less-traditional places for high-quality wine. These are not wines that you buy as futures, so why not keep your money freed up to experiment with them?

Martin says: ‘There are only two reasons to buy wine well in advance of when you expect to drink it. The first is that it is genuinely scarce and will be difficult to get hold of later, such as top Burgundies or Barolos. It can also be enjoyable to build verticals and enjoy them over a long period of time, of course. The other reason relates to wines that are plentiful, and which you think will genuinely be cheaper to buy early and benefit from rising values – either for your own pleasure or for selling on.’

Unless you can be certain of one or the other of these things, think about buying when the wine is bottled.

Know when to drink up… but don’t worry too much about it

It seems a little morbid to think about drinking up in terms of your age. It is surely far better to think about a cellar that is well put together so that there are always wines on hand that are ready to drink, with none over-age in any particular area.

What you want to avoid is having a load of wine from one area that all of a sudden needs to be drunk before it expires. And that’s to do with the age of the wine, not the collector.

Starting a cellar

A starter cellar should have a good mix of wines for both drinking and ageing, from at least four or five different regions ideally, and including a mix of red/white/rosé/sparkling/sweet/fortified, as your personal taste dictates. The key for storage, above all else, is constancy of temperature. It should be somewhere between 10°C and 15°C – the longer you plan to keep the wine, the closer to the lower end of that scale it should be, without going too low.

Start as you mean to go on, by recording your bottles online. The best systems allow you to be as detailed or general as you like – most allow input of critics’ scores, purchase details, drink dates, space for your own notes, locations of wines, and searches using scans of labels.

To start off a reasonable wine cellar, think five years ahead. Let’s assume you will be opening five bottles a week (250 a year). Add a further 50 for choice/good measure, bringing us to 300 bottles a year. Buying 1,500 bottles or so gives a good choice of wine to start off with and allows for experimentation before committing to greater numbers.

The four ages of cellaring

35-year-olds: Your first wine cellar is probably the one where you will make the most mistakes – but the nature of those mistakes will be entirely personal to you. Cellars are often influenced by fashion, so in the 1990s they were likely to have been full of cult Australian and Napa labels, with a good dose of Right Bank garagistes. Today’s wine cellar might be high on the natural wine count, although if so you might want to keep a close eye on critics’ drink-by dates.

First cellars are also very different beasts than they might have been 10 or 20 years ago. The high prices of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Rhône, Tuscany, Piedmont and other fine wines means that many young collectors now are experimenting with places they might not have considered in the past. Downey’s personal tips are for Sonoma and South Africa.

Repeating her general advice to anyone starting a cellar from scratch, consider sourcing about 1,500 bottles, which will give shape and depth to your initial collection.

45-year-olds: Your average collector is starting to have more disposable income now. These are your classic ‘buy two cases – one to drink and one to sell’ years, and your cellar is likely to contain close to 3,000 bottles, giving a good 10 years of drinking. Bordeaux and Barolo, maybe a few steps into Burgundy? Sounds ideal – though it is increasingly impossible to justify two cases of classified Bordeaux, even with the intention of selling one down the line.

And anyway, buying with the intent to sell is never a safe idea. ‘Wine is perishable and is always only one natural disaster, or accident, away from being destroyed,’ says Downey. ‘The best approach is to buy what you plan to drink, and if your tastes change, then look at selling some bottles that no longer make fit with your preferences’.

55-year-olds: Tastes may be evolving towards more subtle wines at this point, with Burgundy becoming more of a big deal. These are also the classic years for opening up a few of the cases that have been laid down over the preceding decades, perhaps to celebrate major life events. Now is also the time to reshape your cellar, to check that it is evolving in step with your changing tastes.

Numbers will depend on your approach – either remaining at the ‘think 10 years ahead mark’, so an ever-evolving 3,000 bottles, or a still-manageable 20 years ahead, so about 6,000 bottles.

Remember that if your cellar has reached 9,000 bottles by this point, which is perfectly possible in the typical collectors’ prime years, that is taking you 30 years ahead, again assuming an annual consumption/sharing of 300 bottles. Worth considering if you want to dictate your drinking habits 30 years in the future to quite that extent.

65-year-olds: This is the golden age to be drinking through the contents of your cellar, making sure that you have the wines that you want and are selling on things you don’t want.

It is still worth keeping 10 to 20 years of wines in terms of numbers, but the beauty of your cellar now is that it should be switching the emphasis on to drinking vintages, with not too many bottles for laying down for decades to come. Steven Spurrier has some great advice here based on his experience: ‘I would imagine that claret represents 40% of the volume and 30% of the value in my cellar, but less than 10% of my annual consumption, so this is an area where I have been slimming down and will do so further.

‘The aim for me is to find a buyer who will take six bottles if I have 12, three if I have six, but rarely the whole case or half-case, as the wines will have been bought to drink, not to sell.’

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