We all have collections of wine of some sort, even if it is still in the supermarket bag. People have different reasons for what the buy and keep, and many ways of doing it. You must decide what your needs are, and use that knowledge to inform what you do.

If you are starting a cellar from scratch, or perhaps just starting again, there are a number of questions that you need to ask yourself:

WHY do I want a cellar of wine?
HOW will I organise and fill it?
WHERE am I going to keep it?
WHAT do I want in my cellar?
WHAT happens if my tastes or circumstances change?

These are all personal decisions, based on your individual style and resources. All an outsider can do is offer advice on some of the practical issues. The standard piece of wisdom that most professional tasters would offer is that you should always buy wine that you want to drink. If you just want to invest in first growth Claret because you think prices will rise, then go to a wine investment fund and let them do the work. The longer you want to keep the wine, the better your storage will have to be, and the more it will cost. And, of course, don’t spend more than you can afford.

We are going to put together a collection of articles and tips on this subject. Please send in your thoughts and experiences to add to this archive. It will be especially valuable if you have additional questions that we should be considering.
If you click on one of the questions above, you can see what we have put together on that topic.

Why Do I Want a Cellar of Wine?

Personally, I keep wine mainly to use for tastings over the next year. I buy wine when I see interesting offers, either of wines that are hard to find or wines selling at a discount. Quite a lot of my ‘cellar’ is in the form of boxes of wines marked up with the tasting that they are destined for. There are a few wines that I think are worth aging a year or two more, and some (cheap) ones to open when I feel like having one with dinner.

Others will have different reasons for building a cellar. If you like, and can afford, classic wines which need aging, you have a choice. You can buy them at first release, when they are usually at their cheapest and store them, or you can buy them when they are mature and hope that they have been kept properly in the meantime.

If you own or manage a restaurant or wine bar, you will need to keep stock in hand to supply your customers without having to sneak out to Tesco every time someone wants a bottle. Your cellar will contain the wines that you are expecting to sell within a reasonable period.

(Editor 9.7.14)

How will I Organise and Fill the Cellar?

Organising your cellar is vital. You must have good records so that you know what you have and where to find it. If you use a personal computer record, make sure that it is backed up (he said from bitter experience). There are commercial packages available with cloud storage. You might well want a written stock book as well.

Whatever system you choose, put it in place before you do any serious buying. Then make sure that each purchase is recorded, with full details of the wine and where it is. You will need a system that allows you to make changes – you might buy wine en-primeur that is still in the production process, then gets moved to a bonded warehouse, and finally gets delivered to you. When you open the case, some of the details on the label may not be the same as the merchant’s original advertisement. And you may well want to add comments as you taste the wine, or see other people’s tasting notes.

It’s probably wise to have some order to both your stock records, and the physical storage, that makes sense to you, so that you can find the wine that you are looking for. It would often be most convenient if wines next to each other in the records were physically next to each other, but this is often impractical – it could mean moving bottles or cases every time new stock is delivered.

You will need to keep an overview of the cellar, as well as records of the actual contents. You need to keep asking what you lack and which sort of wines are becoming overstocked. This might happen because of taking up some special offers, or a change in opinions about when you should drink a particular vintage. Always bear in mind when you are going to drink the wine you are buying, and in what quantity. A problem that many collectors have is that they leave the wine until it is well beyond its peak drinking window.

(Editor 9.7.14)

Where am I Going to Keep the Wine?

My personal ‘cellar’ is a collection of cupboards and cardboard boxes of wine, mostly in the dining room and under the stairs. I do not recommend this if you intend to store fine wine for any length of time!

If you have a genuine wine cellar, then you are off to a good start – you don’t have to worry about temperature fluctuations or vibration, both of which can advance maturity and cause poor development or faults. The wine will be in the dark (light from the sun or artificial sources, especially fluorescent tubes, can rapidly cause damage, especially to white wines). What you will have to prepare for is the dampness. Cardboard boxes can collapse, and labels peel off. Most cellars are damp, and this helps to preserve the corks, but this is not good for storing paper. When wine is bottle aged in the winery, the last job before dispatch is to put on the labels. Make sure that you know what is in each bin in case the labels do disappear.

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a real cellar. If you want to collect and age wines and you don’t have one, then it is going to cost you money. The choices include: paying someone to look after the wine for you; digging a cellar; or fitting storage space into your house.

Your merchant can usually arrange to cellar wine for you. You may buy wine ‘in-bond’. Normally you can leave it there until you need it, but you will have to pay an annual storage and insurance fee. Similar charges will apply if you have the wine stored at the merchant’s premises. Possibly a cheaper alternative will be to hire a storage unit – many operators have temperature controlled ones, or units that have little temperature fluctuation because of the way that they are built and operated. Don’t forget to arrange insurance though – your household policy may not cover it.

Digging a cellar is a major operation. There are companies that can install racking in a kind of well in your garden, or under the house, which you enter through a kind of (wo)man-hole cover. It would be interesting to hear from people that have had this kind of work done.

Indoors, you can install the wine equivalent of a fridge, although the best ones compensate for the room being too cold as well as too warm. If you have the space, you could insulate a spare (preferably windowless) room – you might not even need cooling or heating equipment if the insulation is good enough. A garden shed is going to need a lot of work to bring it up to the necessary standard.

(Editor 9.7.14)

What do I Want in My Cellar?

This is probably what most people mean when they ask how to put together a cellar. It is also the most difficult to answer from outside. The answer is going to be personal. Once you have decided what your cellar is for and how you are going to arrange the storage, you should have a good idea of where to start looking. The trade answer is to find a wine merchant that you can trust. Good luck! Wine merchants are in the business of selling the wine that they have bought.

Do as much research as you can. Read wine critics’ reports, then find some of the wines that they recommend and see if their preferences match yours. Notes from merchants and producers are likely to be biased, but with experience you can learn to interpret them. Beware of general information. A good vintage in one area or property doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a good vintage in a neighbouring area or property. Many things can go wrong, from a hail storm to an infection. Conversely, a poor year on the general chart doesn’t mean that everything was bad. Individual properties may have had different conditions. Even areas as close as the Medoc and St Emilion can vary in quality if (say) the right-bank Merlot was picked before the storms that diluted the left-bank Cabernet. The ‘write-off’ year of 1997 in Bordeaux saw top quality wines from Sauternes, Alsace, Germany…

The ideal answer is to try before you buy. In practice this is rarely possible unless you are in the wine trade. Then you need the expertise to decide how a young wine will develop (and even the experts will disagree). The safer way is to buy from producers that have a good reputation, whose wine style you know and like, and from vintages that the writers recommend.

(Editor 9.7.14)