Saturday , August 15 2020
Andy Newman

Going underground

When I bought my house in Norwich’s Golden Triangle, there were several things about it which made me know it was right for me almost straight away.  Aside from the great location, it had real fires, a delightful William Morris Arts and Crafts design, and even a north-facing music room for my piano. 

But perhaps the thing which really clinched the deal was that it had a cellar. For the first time in my life, I would be able to buy wine for ageing, safe in the knowledge that it would be able to rest in more or less ideal conditions while it slept towards maturity.

I think for most wine-lovers, having a cellar is a dream.  What fun it would be to build it up, keep it stocked, and then descend to the musty depths to bring forth all manner of perfectly à point vintages.

You can of course keep your precious bottles above ground, but unless you are prepared to invest in a costly and not terribly environmentally-sound temperature-controlled wine cupboard, your wine will never be at its best kept in the house.

To mature properly, your best bottles need three things: a constant temperature – ideally 11°C, but the constancy is almost more important; darkness to avoid UV light spoiling the wine; and a complete lack of vibration (which is why keeping wine in a fridge long-term is a bad idea – you have no idea how much movement its motor causes).

You also want an element of humidity to keep the corks from drying out, but not too much, or else your labels will rot, and so, potentially, will the corks themselves.  A constant humidity of about 70 per cent is ideal.

Having racked out my cellar, the next task was planning what to put in it.  It is all too easy to blow your entire budget on a relatively small number of high-end bottles, but I would advise against this. Firstly, you would be surprised how quickly you, your family and your friends will empty your cellar again. The instant availability of so many bottles can be impossible to resist.

But more importantly, such an approach requires a level of patience I simply don’t possess. Buy decent Bordeaux en primeur and you will have to wait the best part of a decade before it is at its peak. Anyone who has tasted un-mature claret during its so-called ‘dumb phase’ will know just how disappointing it can be.

If you are setting out on stocking your cellar, my advice is to do so in three more or less equal parts: bottles which you can bring back up again next week and enjoy; half-mature bottles which you can put away for two or three years before they are ready to drink; and then those long-term prospects which you are prepared to leave sleeping for years and years.

This is a kind of ‘Good, Better, Best’ approach, and your budget should reflect this. Now, you may be the kind of plutocrat who opens a First-Growth claret every time you reach for the corkscrew, but for the rest of us cost will be a consideration. Resist the temptation to splash out if you will then feel reluctant to enjoy the wine because you are worrying about the cost.

When you create your cellar, you are likely to build a rack capacity which you can’t instantly fill.  Don’t worry about this – building up your collection over time is part of the fun, whether through trips across the Channel to visit vineyards and stock up (NB: by the time you read this, our politicians may have rendered this no longer possible), by visiting wine auctions in search of a bargain, or through interacting with wine merchants and letting them introduce you to new stars.

A good rule of thumb if you are going to adopt the three-tier principle is that your cellar needs to grow to a minimum of 200 bottles. This will mean you always have wine to drink, and in time will have a steady supply of better bottles to open for special occasions.

Of course, the 200 bottle number is a target minimum.  The only limits to how big your collection can become will be space and the depth of your wallet.

A cellar also allows you to buy en primeur. This is the process whereby you buy your wine as soon as it is released, often not actually receiving it for a year or more after that date (you only pay the duty when it is shipped).  Vineyards do this to provide cash flow, rather than tying up massive amounts of capital in maturing wines; the ‘win’ for the drinker is that you will generally (but not always) get the wine considerably cheaper than it will be once it is ready to drink.

Finally, don’t forget to try and make your cellar a pleasant place to be. There is a real pleasure in sitting with a glass, surrounded by your bottles, and just contemplating them.  In this modern world of wellbeing and mindfulness, I can think of nothing more relaxing. 

Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month

  • Running With Bulls Tempranillo, South Australia
    Co-op, £8
    The slightly naff name suggests it is from Spain, and indeed Tempranillo is that country’s flagship grape, but in fact this is from Down Under, where the grape is gaining a foothold.  Big, robust and beefy, with plums and cherries with a hint of spice.  Great value.
  • Chablis Domaine Fournillon 2015
    Bakers & Larners, £12.99
    A good value Chablis with a nice buttery, rounded mouthfeel. Made in a modern style without the mineral flintiness that Chablis traditionalists might look for, but if you don’t over-chill it, and let it breathe in the glass, it will reward you with stone fruit flavours and a smooth experience.
  • Marchesi di Grésy Monferrato Rosso 2011
    Bakers & Larners, £19.49
    A rarity: a 100% Merlot from the Piemonte in northern Italy. The Merlot was originally grown to be blended with the local Barbera grape, but it worked so well, they decided to bottle it on its own. It spends 12 months in used Allier oak and then a further 24 months in Slavonian oak. Aromatic spices, forest fruits and damsons on the nose, and then plums, sour cherry, cedar and spice on the palate. With ripe tannins and perfect balance, this is a real find.

Article published in Feast Issue 41

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