How to build a corking wine collection

Do you dream of owning a well-stocked wine cellar, but think it's an extravagance you could never afford? You'd be wrong, says Richard Ehrlich. With a little know-how, and a lot less money than you might imagine, you'll have a vintage collection in no time
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T aking a walk through a well-stocked wine cellar is the adult equivalent of being a seven-year-old in Hamleys. Surrounding you on all sides, racks groan with hundreds or even thousands of opportunities for liquid pleasure. Whenever I walk into such a place, I think (and sometimes say) that I would like to be locked in there for a weekend with nothing but a loaf of bread, a corkscrew, and a clean glass.

Such cellars are a rarity outside the world of the mega-rich. But there's no reason that you can't assemble something comparable given the space, the enthusiasm, the willingness to do your homework, and - I probably don't need to say this - a fair chunk of disposable cash. What follows is a sort of beginner's guide to assembling a wine cellar, one comprising bottles in three different categories. Category one: drink it soon. Category two: keep it for two to five years. Category three: keep it for a long time, for five years or more.

Before I say another word, two things have to be made clear. First: most wine is not designed for long storage of the kind you see in the cellars of the very wealthy. Some 90 per cent of wine is designed for drinking within a year of the vintage when it was made, and while it might not suffer too greatly if it sits for a year after that, you're not going to be getting the best from it.

Second: even with wines and wine regions that have traditionally been regarded as long-term keepers, there is an increasing tendency nowadays to make them for younger drinking. This can be achieved using a number of techniques, both in the vineyard and in the winery, that are all aimed at making wines that taste better in their youth - but which lack some of the ingredients needed to preserve the wine while it's going through the complex chemical changes which, taken together, constitute maturity.

For both these reasons, I'd say that the first rule of cellar creation is to seek advice from the place where you're buying your wine. Any of the excellent wine merchants listed (see box, bottom) will give you sound guidance. Just tell them what sort of timescale you're thinking about, and they should be able to tell you which of their wines are suitable for drinking at particular ages. If you want to buy for different drinking periods, they can come up with a range of wines for your consideration.

Another top rule: learn to trust your own judgement, but be prepared to widen your wine horizons. There is no law that says everyone has to enjoy everything. If you love chardonnay and merlot, the most popular grape varieties, you can build a respectable collection featuring them above all others. At the same time, you should add at least a little something of other varieties. And you should start thinking about where the wines come from. The greatest wines taste not just of their grape variety but of the particular place where the grapes were grown. As you broaden your horizons, the differences between chardonnay from Burgundy, South Africa, and New Zealand will become apparent. And in some of those areas, you will also start to see the differences between chardonnay from different villages in Burgundy and different regions of South Africa, New Zealand and California.

Rule number three: learn. If you ask any expert who's been working in the field for a decade or three or five, they will tell you that they never stop learning about wine and they never tire of learning about it. Speaking from experience - and with none of the practical/academic training that many wine-pros have - I can assure you that I'm constantly discovering areas, wines, techniques, and sometimes whole countries that were entirely new to me. However much you know about the subject now, there will always be more to learn. Read the wine columns. Buy books and absorb them. Take a wine course if you want to get really serious.

Some smaller rules are also in order. One: as soon as the wine starts coming in, get it organised and keep it organised. Keep all the invoices so you know where everything came from; create a cellar book showing what you have and in what quantities; and make a note (in the book) of what you opened, and when, and how you liked it. (If you want to make tasting notes, all the better.) Two: buy the right number of bottles of each wine. For those you plan to keep for many years, 12 is right; for shorter-term keeping, six will probably suffice. You may get a case discount from many merchants, and more important you will be able to follow the wines' progress as they age.

Note: some people buy two cases of really expensive wines - those with possible investment value. Then they have the option of selling the second if they learn, some years down the road, that its price has gone up considerably. Having said that, I must add a health and wealth warning. What you're reading here has nothing to do with wine investing, which is a specialised and risky business. I'm talking about wines for drinking.

How much money do you need to start a wine cellar? Leaving aside the investment needed for proper storage (see box, left), it isn't as much as you think. Not if you're buying mostly for early drinking, at any rate. If you buy six cases of early-drinking wine, three for longer-term keeping, and one for the long haul, your expenditure will be around £800. That may sound like a lot, but it's for 120 bottles - with enough to keep you going for everyday drinking while the other bottles get ready. If you do that for five or six years, you will have the foundations of a very good cellar.

Where to keep it

If you want to start buying wine in serious quantities, and to keep it for more than a few months, you need to think about storage. Wine hates several things: extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity, movement and light. And it hates warmth above all. That means that if you're buying it for the long haul, you need to treat it right. Those cool underground cellars weren't invented just for the hell of it. They are the only way to keep wine from ageing prematurely.

Home users have three main options for ideal storage. One is to keep the wine with the merchant from which you bought it, and this can be the cheapest option - at least initially. Merchants offering storage facilities usually charge around £7-£10 per annum per case, though the cost per case goes down if you store more cases with them. This might make sense if you only have a few cases, but if you're planning to buy larger quantities and keep them for a long time, you'll end up spending a lot over the years. The other two options bring the wine home - at a large or possibly enormous initial outlay, but one that will pay for itself eventually. The first one is an indoor cabinet which maintains perfect cellaring conditions behind glass doors. Several companies sell these, of which the best known by far is EuroCave (www.eurocave.co.uk; 020-7935 4679). Their prices vary depending on size, but storage for around 200 bottles will cost in the region of £2,000. If you're really serious, you should think about building a cellar dug beneath your house. The market leader is Spiral Cellars (www.spiralcellars.com; 020-8834 7371). This is a hefty investment: prices start at around £7,000 plus VAT for the smallest "mini-cellar", which holds a maximum of 650 or 770 bottles depending on size.

Where to buy it

You can find wine that's worth laying down in the most surprising places. Your local supermarket may be best for champagne deals, with the best of all being Majestic Wine Warehouses, but you'll generally find the best selection of other wines at independent wine merchants. Here is a personal selection.

THE WINE SOCIETY

( www.thewinesociety.com; 01438 741 177)

Top of the league. It's a members-owned co-operative, and lifetime membership costs £40.

ADNAMS

( www.adnamswines.co.uk; 01502 727 222)

A good generalist giving personal advice from a small but well informed staff.

LAY & WHEELER

( www.laywheeler.com; 08453 301 855)

Great list and good advice.

NOEL YOUNG WINES

( www.nywines.co.uk; 01223 844 744)

Particular good in Austria, but top-notch all-rounder.

BERRY BROS & RUDD

( www.bbr.com; 08709 004 300)

Ancient, well-heeled, superb website and huge list.

LEA & SANDEMAN

( www.londonfinewine.co.uk; 020-7244 0522)

Best for France and Italy, and excellent advice.

HOWARD RIPLEY LTD

( www.howardripley.com; 020-8877 3065)

Extraordinary lists in both Germany and Burgundy; pricey but pukka.

VALVONA & CROLLA ( www.valvonacrolla.com; 0131-556 6066)

Italian specialists based in Edinburgh.

THE NEW ZEALAND HOUSE OF WINE

( www.nzhouseofwine.com; 01428 648 930)

The name says it all.

Huge selection.

HALIFAX WINE COMPANY

( www.halifaxwinecompany.com; 01422 256 333)

A top shopping mall for all of Portugal (and much more).

SWIG

( www.swig.co.uk; 08000 272 272)

Good overall, but a star in South Africa.

MORENO WINE MERCHANTS

( www.morenowine direct.com; 020-7286 0678)

The best Spanish specialist on the block.

YAPP

( www.yapp.co.uk; 01747 860 423)

Specialists in the Rhône, the Loire, and Provence.

FARR VINTNERS

( www.farrvintners.com; 020-7821 2000)

Top-notch, ultra-reliable wine merchant, specialising in varieties from Bordeaux. Good place to look if you want a particular wine from a particular vintage.

FINE AND RARE WINES

( www.frw.co.uk; 020-8960 1995)

A broker, dealing mainly at the very top end of the market. Comparable to Farr.

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