Why Do We Bother Cellaring Wine?

“Age cannot wither her,” says the narrator Enobarbus in Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra. He could just as easily have been talking about the longevity of fine wine as Antony’s infatuation.

Because ever since the late 17th century invention of the glass bottle and the cork, we have known that fine wine has the capacity to improve with age. Indeed, wine’s potential for improvement as it matures is a significant part of what distinguishes fine wine from everyday wine.

So it was with the bottle of Château Chasse-Spleen 2000 I opened this summer from a case of 12 bottles I’d bought way back in 2001. Since delivery in 2002, it had lain in my ‘cellar’ under a doctor’s surgery in London’s Old Kent Road, coincidentally the cheapest property on the Monopoly board (though my rent is a little higher).

I couldn’t have asked for more. It was delightfully mature and “truffley” on the nose, silk-soft in texture with sumptuous developed flavors. What cost £15 a bottle back in the day costs £75 on a wine merchant’s list today.

I can smugly pat myself on the back for my foresight, but the point is that buying the wine en primeur, or pre-release, can make the difference between having that mature fine red to drink or not.

The guessing game and drinking window

To define precisely what fine wine actually is and its cellaring potential is an exercise that has kept wine writers like me in gainful employment. The fact is that no one can feed the many variables of wine into a computer and expect a printout with a consume-by date.

The quality of a particular vintage, the performance of the producer and the condition in which that bottle has been kept until it is drunk are among the factors that, taken together, make judging the readiness of any particular wine a guessing game. 

Not for nothing did the late wine scribe and director of Château Latour, Harry Waugh, observe: “there’s no such thing as great wine, only great bottles”. I think by that he also meant the occasion too.

Broadly speaking, the higher the quality of the wine, the longer the drinking window. The point is not to cellar the wine for the sake of it, but rather, to maintain the wine for such length of time and in such optimum condition that by the time it’s ready for drinking, it has gone through a transformation for the better in the bottle.

Lay it down or leave it to the experts? 

What does improvement mean in this context? If of sufficient quality, balance and structure, the wine undergoes subtle changes that bring about more nuanced aromas and flavors, sometimes called secondary, and even tertiary, that add to its overall complexity, and with that, our enjoyment of it.

We are spoilt for choice with the growing range of wines available on wine merchant lists, in supermarkets and online. So is there really any point in laying down wine for any length of time or should we not rather leave it in the hands of the experts and buy our wines from them once they’re ready to drink?

In my world, there’s room for both. We can service our everyday wine needs by browsing in retail or online for good value, ready to drink wines at reasonable prices.

For weekends, special occasions and even sneaky everyday treats however, when we crave something special to suit the occasion, there are ways of expanding drinking options by creating ready access to fine wines without having to break the bank.

Starting a cellar doesn’t mean having to undermine the foundations of your house or take out a second mortgage. Most of us don't have the luxury of an underground cellar in our houses, so we need to be able to resort to other means of creating the space necessary, not just to keep bottles, but to keep them in good condition.

I can happily consign fine wine I intend to leave to mature for a few years to a wine merchant’s warehouse until I’m ready to dial it up. Wines that will soon be ready to drink I keep in my underground lock-up, every so often bringing some home to the wine fridge in my kitchen.

This is the practical solution to lack of space. With two temperatures, 14°C (57.2°F) above and 8°C (46.4°F) below, I have all the space I need in my wine fridge for the two to three months before my next foray to the Old Kent Road; not, I hasten to add, to see the doctor.