Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cellar Savvy

Q: I would like to start collecting wines but don’t have a cellar nor can I afford to build one or buy one of those fancy self-contained climate controlled units that I’ve read so much about. I was hoping you might have some suggestions on how to best store my wines for future drinking without investing in an expensive system. I would rather put my wine budget into the wines themselves.
- Paul

A: This is a dilemma encountered by many whose interest in wines have extended beyond the buying and drinking stage and want to take it to the next level – purchasing bottles they can allow to age to their full potential for future enjoyment. Indeed, buying wines when they are first released is the most economical option when it comes to those that are intended for aging. If you wait to purchase them when they are at their prime, their price will invariably have risen, sometimes two, three, even 10 times their original cost depending on how long they’ve been kept by the winery, the critical reviews they’ve received and medals they’ve – assuming that they’ll even be available by then. The top wines often sell out quickly and they are impossible to find beyond their initial release date.

The good news is you don’t have to spend thousands on a state-of-the-art system. While a climate-controlled space would be ideal, those of us with tight budgets prefer to invest our funds in wine rather than having a fancy, mostly empty cellar – and I am included in that statement. I have amassed a decent collection which I keep tucked away in the crawl space of our home. A series of Costco racks line an outside wall – which remains cool even in the height of summer, but there is no risk of freezing come winter. The area doesn’t get a lot of light and there’s little vibration, both issues which can affect wine over the long run.

I have had reasonable success with this set-up. Only a couple of wines over the years have failed the test of time and I’m not entirely sure that they weren’t flawed to begin with. I have kept some wines under similar conditions for close to 10 years and have been delighted with the results. Truly, there are very few wines that should be cellared as long as that. The idea that all wines improve with age is a myth. The majority of wines are made to consume young and I rarely keep any beyond three to five years. Whites, in particular, should be enjoyed when they are fresh and youthful.

To set up your cellar, find a place that doesn’t see a lot of traffic and where the temperature is consistent year round. A basement corner is a popular choice, but closets located on an outside hall work well as they rarely have heating vents and are surprisingly cool when the doors are closed.

Q: My wife and I were fortunate enough to purchase a couple of bottles of the Mission Hill 2006 Riesling Icewine (which recently captured the International Wine Challenge (IWC) Trophy for the World’s Top Icewine). We currently have them laying on their sides in the display tubes. Will the quality improve over time if we keep them this way? If we were to sell them for a profit (because they are hard to come by), do you think it would be best to list them now or several years down the road.
- Richard

A. Congratulations, you have indeed acquired a lovely wine. In the past eight years only three Icewines have been successful in achieving this award. And you are right, it is rather hard to come by. In fact, it is currently sold out at the winery. That being said, selling wines for profit is a tricky business. Sure the wine is rare and it won a prestigious medal, but how many people would want to buy it and how much they are willing to pay for it is virtually impossible to determine. You could certainly throw it on Ebay and command a crazy price and you might get lucky or you could risk it and list it with an auction house and end up getting less than you paid for it. It’s a crap shoot. In fact, according to Ritchie's Auctioneers, which consistently holds rare wine auctions in Toronto, only a tiny number of wines appreciate in value as they age.

Which brings me to your other question – will this wine’s quality improve over time? Not necessarily. Icewines are revered for their luscious sweetness, but a truly great one is also well balanced with a lot of acidity. An Icewine without adequate acidity will be cloying – you might as well be sipping a glass of maple syrup. Unfortunately, acidity tends to drop off with age and thus, for my tastes at least, I prefer Icewines to be fairly young. If you cellar this wine, some of the characteristics that made it the great Icewine that it is will invariably be lost over time.

But its age-ability is the least of your worries if you want to keep this wine as a long-term investment. Unless you can guarantee that the wine was stored under perfect conditions, nobody will be willing to pay top dollar for it. Unlike the first writer, who is planning to age wines for his own enjoyment, cellaring for profit requires an impeccable system or the wines will most certainly not increase in value. Even perfect conditions won’t assure that the wine will still be drinkable at the end of the day, but it lessens the risk for buyers.

In Focus - Mourvèdre
This grape may be among the most challenging of the varieties now being experimented with in the Okanagan Valley. It's extremely late-ripening - about two weeks behind Syrah (already considered a considerable challenge for the region). Plus, even under ideal conditions, its production is known to be irregular. One year it may produce a good yield, followed by a poor one, for no apparent reason. But the effort is apparently worth it, as the grapes produce wines of serious power, colour and flavour. Spain grows the lion's share of this grape. In the Okanagan, small plantings are being attempted in the Black Sage Bench region by Road 13 Vineyards. The plants are currently two years old and thriving.

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