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Your Ultimate Guide to Wine Cellars

Your Ultimate Guide to Wine Cellars

It's time. You've got more fine wine than you can store in a wine fridge anymore, and your ready for a wine cellar solution that will showcase your collection, give you plenty of storage, and provide a conversation starter for guests. Few things are more fun to show off than great wine cellars, but you won't enjoy your collection for years to come unless you put in the effort to do everything right.

The Ultimate Wine Cellar Guide

Choose Your Cellar Type

There are basically four types of wine cellars for the aficionado. A balanced cellar includes a wide variety of vintages for various drinking occasions, with perhaps a few investment bottles and some that will need to sit awhile before they're ready to go.

A tasting cellar is about comfort and learning and needs to be a great place to bring friends and invite experts. A drinking cellar is an efficiently designed space filled with good wine that's ready to drink right now. Finally, an investment cellar is focused on building a collection that will only grow more valuable with time.

Balanced Cellar Contents

To build a balanced cellar, you need a collection of reds and whites, less expensive and more prestigious vintages, and both younger and more mature wines. Have some wines on hand that are ready to be drunk immediately and others that will benefit from aging. You'll need some that are suitable for everyday dinners, some for more important events, and just a few blue-chip labels for those most special of occasions. A collection like this should be around 150 bottles, and you should plan for six to twelve months to research and fill up your cellar.

Balanced Cellar Design

This cellar is more about storage and easy access and less about having people down to admire the collection. Unless it's important to you, you won't need space to have visitors or set out a tasting area, but you will need an area that is actively cooled and kept at the right humidity. If budget is an issue, divide the room so you can buy a smaller cooling system to maintain the perfect humidity and temperature in the space where you keep your aging and most expensive wines. Then you can spend a little less on areas where you'll store your everyday wines.

For storage, diamond bin cubes offer a nice look while allowing you to store multiple wines of the same vintage and see at a glance when you're running low. Double deep units offer twice the capacity of regular stands, but without doubling the amount of space you need to accommodate them.

Tasting Cellar Contents

This cellar is all about broadening your knowledge of wine and learning to like new things. You want to learn more about the vintages you love while also expanding your horizons to consider wines from places, and grapes, you never even knew existed. This should also be a place you're excited to bring friends.

There are three kinds of tastings to consider:
  • Vertical: comparing multiple vintages from the same estate
  • Hierarchical: comparing a range of qualities from one producer
  • Horizontal: comparing one type from multiple estates

With these types of tastings in mind, consult your own goals and preferences to determine which wines you lay in. A vertical tasting will introduce you to new types of wine from an estate you already know you love. A hierarchical tasting will help you better grasp what makes one wine superior to another. A horizontal tasting allows you to identify the best of the best for your palate.

Tasting Cellar Design

Where you might fill out your balanced cellar by the case, the goal here is different. You can easily settle for just a few bottles at a time since the point is to narrow down your choices. This means you can settle for a smaller storage area while providing more room for elegant decor that complements the goal of your cellar.

Whether you decide on a chic, modern look or a traditional motif, look for cooling systems that are quiet and discrete so they won't disturb the atmosphere you're trying to establish. As for storage, tasting tables, corner racks, or double display racks are your best choices here. You might also consider a hand-crafted wine credenza with a built-in refrigerator to function as a special display area for the wines you have on hand at each particular tasting.

Drinking Cellar Contents

This cellar is all about storing wine that's ready to drink. There's no long-term storage envisioned here, and you want to stock this type of cellar with wines that will improve with age, but which will still be a delightful tipple no matter when you open them. Australian Shiraz and Oregon Pinot Noir are known for being tasty in the moment but getting even better with a few years of storage behind them.

For your drinking cellar to be truly versatile, expect to keep some whites, rich reds, light reds, and a few dessert wines. Look for already mature wines, but keep some everyday bottles on hand, as well.

Drinking Cellar Design

Your budget is the greatest determiner here, and your budget and space will ultimately affect what you choose to put in the cellar. If you have limited space, prioritize mature wines of classic vintage. If these won't be staying in your cellar for long, you can choose a smaller and less expensive unit to keep things cool.

Just remember that if your cellar is designed primarily to have good wine ready to drink at a moment's notice that you don't need to stress as much about the temperatures. Anything from 45° F to 65° F (shooting for about 55° F) will work fine if none of the bottles need to sit for a long time, and you can be sure your climate control won't allow the temperatures to change violently.

Investment Cellar Contents

This cellar is very different from all the others. Instead of focusing on your own tastes, you're considering the market. Focus on well-respected vintages and be willing to buy by the lot. If you're buying from California, Cabernets tend to do well with time. From Italy, look for bottles from Brunello di Montalcino. And for the Bordeaux, consider any classified-growth wines from the Médoc region.

The smartest move of all here is to invest in a subscription to a winery mailing list, and it's wise to do this even before you're ready to buy. By perusing lists regularly, you'll get a feel for what investors are looking at and what is appreciating well. As a rule of thumb, higher-priced wines tend to enjoy a greater appreciation factor than less expensive bottles.

Investment Cellar Design

While the purpose of the investment cellar isn't to be a tasting area, it is nice if it can be a place you feel proud to invite guests to peruse. The most important thing of all, however, is proper storage. Most wines do not increase in value as they age, and for the right bottles to do so, they must be stored perfectly, be completely traceable, and stay in their original cases.

Nothing is more important than good storage, so you cannot skimp on choosing the finest climate control units here. Since you may need to keep wines in their original cases to get the best prices at auction, space is important, too. Rather than invest in display racks, choose wine case shelving: but be sure to make the area inviting. If your investment plans go well, you could be playing host to other investors in the near future.

Understand Your Space Needs

How Many Bottles Do You Have?

Consider how many bottles you have right now and how many you plan on having in the near future. At a best guess, how many would you ever have total? Remember that these bottles must be stored on their sides, sometimes for decades, to keep the corks from drying out and the wine from spoiling.

Whatever number you come up with, round it up to the nearest 10. Now distinguish between the number of bottles you plan to drink quickly and the number you will need to store for extended periods. By multiplying these two numbers together, and again rounding up by the nearest 10, you can arrive at a good guess concerning the amount of space you'll need.

Determining Storage by Cellar Size

The average 225 cu. ft. room can hold just under 500 bottles. Double that and you can store nearly 1,050 bottles. For 900 cu. ft. you can store just under 1,600 bottles. If you're lucky enough to have 2700 cu. ft. to devote to your wine collection, you'll be able to store well over 3,000 bottles. However, these estimates assume that all your wall space is dedicated to wine storage. If you want a wall to put a table or chair against, you will lose some space.

Estimate Construction Costs

Construction costs vary enormously depending on the style you choose and the size and purpose of your wine cellar. The best you can do is get a very general estimate at this point.
For a 225 cu. ft. room holding around 500 bottles, expect to pay between $6,000 and $10,000 for the build-out, around $2,000 to install everything, and around $3,000 for cooling and climate control.

For a 900 cu. ft. room, build-out costs will range between $20,000 and $25,000, with climate control running around $5,000. Installation costs should be around $5,000 as well. You can sometimes get deals on certain elements, and the more you buy from one wine storage supplier, the more you can expect to save.

Racking

Simple designs are obviously cheaper, while advanced designs or spaces where you want to incorporate multiple elements will be more expensive. To rack about 500 bottles, expect to pay $2,000 for simple storage and up to $6,000 for incorporating special designs. To store around 1,500 bottles, triple those numbers. Unlike construction costs, which tend to get cheaper per square foot as you go up in size, racking remains a pretty static cost.

Know What You Must Control

You're probably aware of how important it is to control the temperature and humidity in your wine cellar, but light and vibration can be equally important.

Vibration

Vibration isn't as big a deal if you're planning on drinking bottles fairly quickly, but if you plan on storing anything over five years, get worried. Vibration is nothing more than a form of energy, and whether it comes from the kids thudding around in the hallway above or from a subway train that goes by three times a day, you need a way to cancel this out.

First, remove all obvious sources of vibration, like nearby machinery, and invest in quiet, split cooling systems. Make sure all racks you buy are stable and solidly constructed, and, where possible, add extra insulation or thicker walls during construction to cut down on vibrations.

Light

Many modern wines come in bottles with UV protection, but not all do, and older bottles will not have this feature. It's up to you to protect your wines from light. Wines exposed to too much light become "light struck," meaning they start to taste a bit like a piece of wet cardboard. Sparkling wines and whites are the most vulnerable, but light isn't good for any of your wines.

As you build your cellar, choose indirect lighting rather than direct lights that shine right on the bottles. The best design is one that gives you a place to pull out a bottle and check the label in bright light but keeps all bottles in the shade while being stored.

Temperature

As already stated, the ideal temperature for storage is about 55° F, though wines that won't sit for years can endure temperatures a bit above or below that. You should also bear in mind that temperature swings will cause wine to age more quickly, so whatever changes you make should be gentle.

Humidity

Keep your humidity levels at about 70%, so your corks stay moist. Should they begin to dry up, they will shrink, allowing air to get into the bottles and spoil the wine. Keeping your wines on their sides will help prevent this, but keeping humidity levels high will go even farther. Just remember that anything over 70% may cause the corks to mold.

Changed Your Mind?

A wine cellar is a big investment. If you're not yet ready to build out a full room, even a small one, it's better to wait than to do it improperly. If you can't store your wine correctly, you won't enjoy it fully and may lose your interest in something that should be bringing you constant pleasure.

If a wine cellar is too much for you at this point, invest in a proper storage unit for another room. There are units available that will allow you to store anything from six to 500 bottles perfectly and still look reasonably stylish. Just be aware: when you've enjoyed wines stored properly, you won't be able to settle for anything less than the best moving forward.

Get Everything You Need For Wine Storage

Whether you need stylish, free-standing wine coolers or the systems to control the climate of a 2700 cu. ft. wine cave, find it all at Wine Cellar HQ: your go-to supplier for all your wine storage needs.
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