DRINK / The lowdown on laying down

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The Independent Culture
I SHOULDN'T remind him, but we're just approaching the second anniversary of the night the frost ruined pounds 10,000-worth of my cousin's wine. It was usually stored in a friend's cellar, but building work had made it necessary to find it another home. An uninsulated railway carriage doing service as a garden shed wasn't an ideal substitute, and on 20 April 1991, the consignment froze solid, popped its corks and burst its bottles - leaving cases of top clarets and fine Burgundy soggy and bristling with glass.

As a summer waitress in a restaurant by the Loire, I had encountered exploding bottles of another kind. They contained Saumur Champigny, a vibrant red, and for reasons of space had been tucked under a staircase beside the heating pipes. I was ready with a fast napkin for four of the five fermenting bottles, but my first customer for Saumur Champigny went home in a luridly red-spotted shirt.

Warm wine won't necessarily re-ferment, but excessive heat can be damaging. Experiments have shown that 10 weeks at 27C (80F) causes 'marked deterioration' in white wines, particularly sweet whites and champagne, though reds survive

unharmed. Sunlight can cause off-flavours in whites and reds within days, and fluorescent light is said to have the same effect.

But as long as you avoid grilling, freezing or dazzling wine, it is less fragile than people think. Our cellar is too small, and we eat in the kitchen because our wine has taken over most of the dining-room. It is stored upright in its cardboard boxes at a normal, cool household temperature of 17C- 21C (63-70F)). Some of our wines have spent two to three years there, and we've never had any duff bottles.

We lavish more care on the grander, more expensive bottles that we plan to keep for five to ten years. They live in the cellar, but would probably come through unscathed (though perhaps ready a year or two earlier than predicted) if left to languish in the dining-room with the others.

Wine kept at warmer temperatures does mature faster, but it won't come to any harm - unless you keep it too long - at anything from 7C-21C (45- 70F). Frequent swings of temperature are undesirable; the constant expanding, contracting and movement of the wine may speed up ageing, as may shaking the bottles. So it's best to move lengthily-maturing wines about as little as possible.

They are also better stored in racks, with the wine in contact with the cork. Storing bottles for years in an upright position can cause the corks to dry out, letting in the air. Those lucky enough to have a proper underground cellar may also have problems with damp. If your labels rot and moulder, you can still have fun with 'blind tastings' - but beware of picking up damp or rotten cardboard cases full of wine. They collapse.

My ill-fated cousin, who does have a little cellar of his own, was delighted to be given a few bottles of Hungarian Tokay, complete with traces of the famous cellar mould (a sooty-black deposit like insubstantial cotton wool). His cellar is now festooned with the stuff, and it has eaten his labels; he swathes his newer bottles in clingfilm. So splash out on some fungicide.

Mould or no mould, I still lust after an underground cellar to free my dining-room for the serious business of eating. When I have pounds 4,524 to spare, I might take the plunge - into my kitchen floor. A Surrey company called Spiral Cellars Ltd supplies ingenious concrete spiral staircases, two metres wide, that you sink below ground. A honeycomb of shelves on the inside walls holds the bottles.

Wine racks, made to measure around the dining-room walls, are a cheaper option at 60p-80p per hole, plus thick, drawn curtains to deter sunlight and burglars. For smaller quantities - between 12 and 30 bottles - you could spend up to pounds 184 on open cabinets of pine, oak or mahogany, with brass rack inserts. Cabinets also come air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, if you're willing to spend pounds 800- pounds 2,000. I think I'd rather buy some more wine.

Spiral Cellars Ltd, Spinney Cottage, Headley Rd, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8PT (0372 372181); A & W Moore, 222 Mansfield Rd, Nottingham NG5 2BU (0602 441434); Titchmarsh & Goodwin, Trinity Works, Back Hamlet, Ipswich IP3 8AL (0473 252158).