Forming your wine collection – By Vincent Gasnier, Master Sommelier

This article aims to Cellars. Now that you have a Spiral Cellar you have the chance to build a good-sized collection, perfectly suited to your needs and tastes. But always remember – wine is above all about providing enjoyment, pleasure and “rewards” either palatable or financial. So it’s important that you work out the best way of building your cellar in order to get the best return. Look on it as a great opportunity for one of the better things in life! What better escape from everyday life than to go into your underground cellar – looking, studying, fancying that particular bottle to satisfy your mood… .

Wines to match your lifestyle

Take a close look at your lifestyle to determine which wines will fit best with your current and future drinking requirements. It is very important to have a plan and a vision of what you are aiming for. Without a definite plan, you run the risk of picking up “a bit of this and a bit of that” and never really developing any sense of direction or cohesion. It is much more rewarding to know where you are going.

One of the most important steps is to think about the occasions at which your wines will be served. Most collectors don’t spend their lives hosting a procession of wine tastings, and there isn’t much pleasure in sampling a bottle all by yourself. Most often you’ll be dining with friends and will require several bottles. Work out from your present drinking patterns what you drink most of so you don’t find yourself overstocked with wines which don’t fit your lifestyle. Unless you are buying wine as an investment, you should be careful of stocking up on £100+ bottles if there will be hardly any opportunities to serve them!

Also bear in mind that your wine preferences may change over time. As your knowledge of fine wine grows, so does your passion. The more you learn, the thirstier you become! Your taste may become more refined – educating your palette is an important process. You need to know what to cellar and most importantly why you want to cellar it.

Drinking your wine at the right time

There are no hard and fast rules about the right time to drink a bottle of wine – it is all about your personal preferences. If wine goes bad because it has been left too long it is often because the wine has been a poor vintage or inferior producer, and was not worth the price to start with! There is a time to drink a young, fresh lively wine and a time to open the “old master” – but it has to be your choice. You don’t have to worry about becoming an expert; it is all about your personal preferences, and when you feel the wine is à point – just ready. Some people like a mature style, others prefer a fruity style, rather like you might compare a Tawny with a Ruby Port. One is not better than the other – it’s simply a preference.

Ultimately a wine cellar should reflect your personal taste – not some abstract notion of an ideal cellar crafted by others. Trust your palate; after all, you, not a critic, will be serving the wine at your house. You also need to think about matching your wines with the foods you normally eat at home, as wine is made to enhance food, and food can bring out the best in a wine. Also, think of establishing a balance in your cellar between white wine, red wine and champagne.

How much to buy?

Before becoming too technical, it’s best to begin by applying a few common-sense approaches. First of all, you will know if you are an occasional wine-drinker, or if your consumption is heavier. Will you be drinking wine every day, or will it be weekends, or only occasionally with visitors? The answer to this question will give you a general idea of your target.

Give yourself plenty of time to build up your cellar. Go forward on a narrow front, buying only a few wines at a time, and then deciding which ones you really like and/or want to hold in your cellar. It’s worth noting that the actual process of building up the cellar is great fun in itself. Some people like to show off a full cellar from day one, but most people enjoy building their cellar bit-by-bit. It’s always a good idea to keep a bit of space-you never know what you might find. Personally, I find a full cellar a little boring – I never want my collecting to end!

Once you have identified a general idea of the amount you are aiming for, then I would recommend that you begin by dividing your wine into three categories:

• Category A-to be drunk within 6 months,
• Category B-to be drunk in 1 to 2 years, and
• Category C-to be drunk within 3 to 8 years.

If you are a heavy consumer, you can see that you will need about 70% of your cellar to be category A, but a sociable weekend entertainer might need 50% to be category B, and so on. This will give you a way of working out the amount and the balance of the types and styles of wine.

However, I recommend not to end up with a big bill at once, or even worse, an empty cellar, I would put a strategy in place which would allow me to budget over the year how much I can spend. A sensible way would be to buy a case of long-term wine every two to three months, and if you don’t touch it, you’ll be well on your way to stocking your cellar. Then try to buy one case, also every two months, of a recent vintage, medium-range wine e.g Californian Merlot or a Reserve Chianti, which can be drunk both shortly after purchase and through the next 3 to 5 years; this adds a lot of flexibility to your collection. For your daily drinking, buy a case each of an inexpensive, light red and white every month.

It is vital to keep a good record from the start of your cellar. You will never remember all of the wines and how you felt about them at the time. It is essential to keep notes and to build up a picture that will help you manage your cellar efficiently. Buy a cellar a book and rate your wines from 1 to 10 and add comments relating to style, food and so on.

Price and Quantity

Always remember that wine does not have to be expensive to be good. There will always be a need for young, fresh and lively wines, and these need not be expensive. You do not need to fill your cellar with the most expensive wines, and then worry about drinking them! It’s essential to have some idea of a budget in mind-just like any other activity.

You might want to set a marker of £8 for category A wines, £12 to £15 for B and £15 to £25 for C, (and even a D for the serious collectors and investors) and although this will vary, it can give you a start as to how much you might be spending. Be careful of “offers”; it is better to find wines which you like, and which you know are good value, whatever the price.

Naturally you will want to have a balance of white, red and champagne in your cellar. Remember that because of its absence of tannin, white wine will generally not last as long as red, and you will need to manage this. Remember also to have a balance of “old” and “new” world wines, to give yourself and your friends the full world wine experience.

It’s reasonably easy to work out how much you will need for yourself alone, but don’t forget you are also buying for your partner, and for those occasions when friends and family come round. This is often when your cellar will come into its own! For a party or social occasion, I would normally allow for 1 to 1.5 bottles per person for the evening. I would allocate a half bottle of champagne per person, and have a balance of 40% white and 60% red wine, unless of course you know that your friends are different!

Learning as you go

A good idea is to use restaurants as a learning tool. One obvious advantage a restaurant has over a retail wine store is that it provides the chance to taste a wine in the context of a meal. It’s an opportunity to let your curiosity run wild by pairing wines from diverse regions or vintages with different dishes to see what marries best. There’s clearly no point in ordering something you regularly drink at home, so take advantage of a wine list’s breadth or depth.

A good sommelier won’t necessarily steer you toward the upper echelons of the list. In theory, a sommelier knows the inventory thoroughly, and should familiarise you with some of the cellar’s hidden treasures. Skilled sommeliers are as up-to-date with the contemporary wine scene as any retailer or auctioneer. What’s more, they get feedback nightly on their recommendations, so they’re in a good position to inform you about recent releases and vintages which are showing particularly well. Take advantage of their expertise.

It’s also really important to learn as much as you can about maintaining your wine in the best condition and serving it to perfection. Your Spiral Cellar will greatly help in keeping the wine as it should be kept. However, you need to take care that this advantage is not lost because the (red) wine has been served too warm, or the (white) too cold, which will reduce or enhance the quality and characteristics of the wines. The colder it is the fruitier and leaner/crispier the wine feels but for a red wine, cold temperature will make the wine feel more tannic. Therefore the temperature of service is a key to the tasting and appreciation of wine.

You should also make sure you have good quality and appropriate wine glasses, and that if necessary you decant the wine correctly in order to bring out the best in it. Always remember, it’s at the moment of drinking when everything should come together!

Your Plan

To summarise; in order to gain the maximum satisfaction from your Spiral Cellar and from your wine, you need to take some simple steps:

1) Set a guideline for what you want to achieve, essentially based on how frequently you will be drinking your wine.
2) Have a clear idea of the level of your budget and how you will manage it. Always remember that wine does not have to be expensive to be good.
3) Play your collecting by ear, based on your own preferences. Remember the process of building the cellar is great fun.
4) Don’t fill it up all at once. Buy small quantities of wine until you find your regular preferences.
5) Learn as much as you can about the wider world of wines, and how to maintain and serve your wine to perfection.
6) Always remember that wine is fun! Don’t buy in such a way that you become anxious about your stock. Play it cool and slow, and your cellar will become one of the most enjoyable things in your life!
Vincent Gasnier
Master Sommelier

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