Cellaring Essentials

By Campbell Mattinson

There are naturally a lot of questions on how to correctly cellar wine, and almost an equal amount of bad advice. Campbell Mattinson is setting the record straight and answering your two biggest cellaring questions: What makes a wine suitable for the cellar? And when should you drink it? 

It’s a crying shame. Every other week I receive an unsolicited email about a wine that’s been “cellared” for many a long decade. The wine, on enquiry, is almost always one I’ve never heard of – often a fake news brand made exclusively for a wine club. It’s hard to know what to say; the wine was made to be consumed soon and it’s now much later. It’s rubbish. It was kept for nothing.

Most wine is not designed to age and won’t do so. It will get worse, and rapidly. Most wine at five years of age, let alone 10, tastes horrid, regardless of how delicious it was to start with – all its various components either drop off or fall out of tune. Most wines are not marriage material. They let themselves go.

There are all kinds of fancy things said and felt about wine, but when it comes to cellaring, only three are fundamental: preservatives, harmony and your own personal taste. Preservatives are the easy bit.

If you’re onto a good thing, preserve it.

Alcohol itself is a preservative. Put anything in a jar of pure alcohol and it will be preserved; at much lower levels, alcohol performs the same function in wine. Moscato for instance is often incredibly low in alcohol. It works when it’s young and fresh, but then falls on its backside if you keep it for any length of time – much like those who drink it. Vintage port – high in alcohol – is the opposite. It’s sturdier than a brick outhouse – much like those who drink it – and can be kept for just about ever. Take a bow alcohol.

Acid – such an ugly word, such a beautiful detail – is another key preservative of wine. One reason why all those citrussy rieslings come into their own after a long stint in a cool, dark place is that they’re sizzling with acidity. Tannin, same. Sulphur, likewise. All these things are required, or at least help, to preserve a wine, and so assessing them in the young wine helps you know whether a wine is a good candidate for the cellar or not. That aforementioned moscato? It’s low in alcohol, sulphur, acid and tannin. In cellar terms, it doesn’t stand a chance.


Balance is the champion of wine

Time is the great magnifier. Any small fault or feature in a young person gets blown out of proportion in both terrible and tremendous ways as the decades slip by. Wine is the same. That’s why balance is everything in a cellar-worthy wine. If a young wine is slightly unbalanced when it’s young, chances are it will be massively unbalanced after a long stint in the cellar. The minor becomes mighty at the hand of time.

By unbalanced, we simply mean the wine leans too heavily on tannin, or alcohol, or acid, or sulphur, or indeed that it’s guilty by omission; there isn’t enough of these things, or the wine simply doesn’t have the fruit to carry them. With wine, you don’t want things to poke out. Cellar-worthy wine can be wild with personality, it can be bulging with muscle, it can be loud with flavour or soft, it can be more about potential than fulfilment; but it needs to sing in harmony.


Never forget

This brings us to an essential point. A wine can have all the best preservatives in the world, all measured and balanced with precision, and still be unsuitable for the cellar. The essential thing is there must be something worth preserving in the first place.

To be cellar-worthy, a wine must have good stuffing. It doesn’t need to be big or thick or hearty, but the wine must at the very least suggest a power; an intensity. It must make a clear statement that it has something worth preserving; something worth investing time in.

All tannin, acid, alcohol and sulphur do is take the power and glory of grapes and shuffle them straight to the pool room for safe (or long) keeping. A well-cellared, beautifully mature wine is one of the wonders of life, but it isn’t necessarily the holy grail. It’s a different and remarkable expression of wine. Can it possibly taste better? Does it need time to soften? Does its harmony impress you? These are the questions you need to ask yourself.