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The wineanorak's guide to
Storing wines at home

One of my wine fantasies goes like this. Just before the guests arrive for dinner, I open a sturdy wooden door in the hallway and carefully negotiate some worn stone steps down into the cool, quiet depths of a cavernous cellar. I wander for some minutes among the rows of rather dusty bottles sleeping in their tidy piles, plucking out one here, one there, until I’ve found what I came for.

For some fortunate readers with genuine underground cellars this fantasy might be a reality. But cellars like these are as rare as hen’s teeth in modern homes. While professional storage is one option for the majority who lack proper cellars, it’s an unsatisfying option for those of us who want to have their wines to hand – either because planning ahead to the degree that professional storage requires is an unwanted hassle, or because we just enjoy ogling and fondling our precious bottles.

How should wine be stored? Temperature is probably the most important factor. Wine ageing involves a complex series of chemical reactions, and these take place faster at higher temperatures. The problem is, not only do these reactions speed up as the mercury rises, but their nature also changes. So while a wine kept at a steady 20 °C will mature faster, it is likely to be less interesting and complex than one kept at the conventional cellar temperature of 11–12 °C. Still higher temperatures will cook wine, completely ruining it. With a paucity of decent scientific data it’s hard to be precise, but keeping a wine above 25 °C for a few months will inevitably kill it, as will shorter exposures to temperatures above 30 °C. At the other end of the scale, temperatures below 10 °C aren’t going do damage wine, but they will slow down its maturation. But go down too far and there’s a risk that the wine will freeze. Not recommended.

Fluctuation in temperature is also undesirable, because it increases the risk of oxygen getting to the wine. As the temperature changes, the liquid in the bottle expands and contracts, and if the cork isn’t forming a perfect seal there’s a danger that small amounts of air will enter. Wine ageing is a reductive process that takes place in the absence of oxygen, and if any air does get past the cork, this will rapidly prove fatal to the liquid inside. It follows that  older wines, with their less elastic corks, are far more susceptible to temperature variation than younger ones.

The relatively benign British climate means that short-term passive home storage—in an insulated cupboard, or a north-facing room with the radiators turned off, for example—is a possibility. But this isn’t to be recommended for expensive wines—if you ever want to re-sell, provenance (where the wine has been and how it has been stored) is critical, and auction houses aren’t likely to be interested in wines stored at passive temperature—those you’re intending to keep for more than a few years. 

Dedicated wine storage cabinets
If you want to keep your first growths in pristine condition, it’s going to cost. The cheapest option is to buy a standalone wine cabinet. Although the manufacturers get upset when people say this, think of these as redesigned fridges, designed to run at higher temperatures and altered to maintain an ideal relative humidity of around 70%. The compressor unit is also tweaked to minimize vibration. The market leader is Eurocave, who make a range of dedicated wine cabinets. According to Eurocave, the average sale is a cabinet configured for 210 Bordeaux bottles at a delivered price of £1400. Last year he sold some 900 units, mainly to private customers. The entry-level Eurocave fits around 40 bottles for £780. The cabinets come with a variety of custom options, and can be configured to fit different sized bottles. Eurocave cabinets contain heating elements as well as a cooling unit, and can cope with an ambient operating temperature in the range –5 ° C to +35 ºC—ideal for garages as well as in the home. 

Eurocave’s main competitor in the UK is Transtherm. Interestingly, both outfits are owned by the same French company, Groupe EuroCave SA. Transtherm units offer equivalent features to those of Eurocave, but differ in appearance and are distributed through separate channels. Vin Garde, one of the two UK distributors, sells 600–700 of these a year. Again, most of these sales are to private customers. And the prices? To give you an idea, a medium sized unit taking 144 bottles retails for £1266, and a large cabinet with a 184 bottle capacity is £1499.

The advantage of the Eurocave and Transtherm cabinets is that they are designed with wine storage in mind. Consequently, they’re deep enough for the bottles to overlap neatly at the neck. Other units derived from standard sized fridges are more affordable, but suffer from less efficient storage and tricky retrieval of bottles. Vin Garde also distributes the Vintec cabinets, based on the standard size kitchen unit, with a 60 x 60 cm base. The 90 bottle size will set you back £799, with six height adjustable storage shelves. Because these units don’t have a heating element they can’t really be kept in a garage, but they’re good for the home. Other manufacturers producing similar wine storage cabinets are Miele, Liebherr and Norcool.

A newcomer to the UK market is Vinosafe, distributed by L’Amour du Vin.  They make a wide range of home storage devices, including the TVR range of conventional cabinets and the larger AVR/ATB units with built-in air conditioning. These units are finished in a rather striking (or alarming, depending on your taste) burgundy colour, and they are quite expensive, starting at £1130 for a TVR unit taking up to 150 bottles and going up to £4929 for a 1000 bottle, four-door ATB cabinet.

The key thing to bear in mind in buying one of these stand-alone wine cabinets is capacity. If you are a fairly motivated wine geek it won’t take you long to fill up a 200-bottle unit. Wise counsel seems to be to think how many bottles you are intending to store, and then double that number. One of the great attractions of these units is that they are simple to install (you just plug them in) and you can take them with you if you move. But if you require storage for thousands of bottles, then you probably wouldn’t want a bank of 10 Eurocaves lining your dining room wall. This is where the next option comes in.

The walk-in cellar
If you have the space, then you could always create your own walk-in cellar by using specialized air conditioning units. Eurocave have recently entered this market, selling two temperature control units designed for rooms up to 10 m3 and 20 m3 (priced at £1500 and £1800, respectively). A popular option is to partition off part of the garage, making an alcove. As a rough guide, an area 2.5
´ 2 m will take 1600 bottles. For the less thirsty, 650 bottles will fit into a space 2 m ´ 1.5 m. These units were only introduced last year, and so far 30 have been sold. Other similar specialized air conditioners on the market are the Norcool Coolmaster (£880 to £1300) and Fondis Winemaster (£950 to £1650), both of which are available from Spiral Cellars Ltd. Standard air conditioners aren’t designed to run at such low temperatures, and are unsuitable.

If you are planning to go down this route, then there are some important points to bear in mind. First, the cellar space needs to be thoroughly insulated, or the conditioning unit will be running all the time. That could be expensive. Second, creating different temperature compartments can cause condensation, so the cellar will have to be properly designed with a suitable vapour barrier. Richard Gold’s awkwardly titled How and why to build a wine cellar (ISBN: 0932 66454 7) is widely regarded as the classic reference book on this subject. Perfect for wine-loving DIY nuts. Other help is available by canvassing the opinions of wine nuts about their experiences on discussion fora such as the Wine Lover's Discussion Group (www.wldg.com).

Spiral Cellars
The final option is possibly the most ingenious, and comes in the form of the spiral cellar. This is a solid concrete cylinder, sunk into the ground and with access through a trapdoor. There is a spiral staircase for access and the bottles are recessed into bins surrounding the stairs. Since 1978 10 000 of these units have been installed in French homes. 2 m wide, the cellar comes in depths of 2, 2.25, 2.5 and 3 m depths, taking up to 1600 bottles. Although you could have one recessed into the floor of your living room, a common option is to have them in garages or conservatories. A range of sizes are available, and the most popular choice is a 2 m deep cellar taking 1000 bottles, at a fully installed price of £7049 + VAT. Last year some 150 of these cellars were installed in UK homes. Of course, you can’t take these with you when you go, so you have to be settled in your current location to make this a sensible prospect.

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