What You Really Need In a Wine Cellar
Adding the words ‘wine cellar’ to the description of your home, restaurant, hotel or club, by virtue alone, instantly glams up your space. Accompanied by an automatic picture of gleaming, curated (yes, curated - some people hate that word, but wine cellars almost promise to be curated) bottles stored carefully, the follow up question is almost immediate: “Can I see it?”
And that question was the point all along, right? Showing off the cellar shows off the wine and vice versa.
But first things first - there are always specs before there’s a showroom, and this is the point Danielle, Head Designer, Founder, and President of Elle INTRS wanted to make. I am a wine writer. I typically talk about what you’re tasting, where it’s from, who made it, and why you should be buying it, along with hysterically funny, illustrative stories that pull you deeper into what I have to say because I am just that good. When Danielle approached me about writing an article on wine cellars for EI’s Design Soup, I instantly went into wine portfolio mode, ie. how much to have of what. But Danielle, said, “No, let’s talk about what else you need in your cellar. We all know the wine’s already down there.”
She makes an excellent point. So let’s start with the essentials that will lead to our specs and then to our showroom.
In addition to being a design element, a cellar, like everything else in your space, should be functional, and a cellar’s number one function is to protect and store your wine. Start your wine cellar planning or re-planning process with these essentials:
Temperature control - Wine cellars should at a maintain a temperature of between 45 and 65 degrees. Unless they are highly specialized or zoned, the typical cellar should stay at 55 degrees. A temperature of 55 will keep the wine from unnatural aging or developing cooked tastes and aromas.
A range of 45-50 degrees is perfect for storing sparkling, light whites and light rosés, while 50-60 degrees serves heavier white wines, such as Chardonnay well, and low to mid 60’s preserve red wine of all weights. Wine really should not get close to temperatures of 75 and higher or you run the risk of oxidation.
Maintaining temperature consistency should be a goal. Big hot/cold swings can cause ‘off’ flavors and aromas to develop. Swings can also adversely affect the cork, which can then cause seepage.
Temperature shifts of a few degrees either way are fine however, so don’t panic over slight fluctuations.
Light - Plan the lighting for your cellar to be very dim to dark. Too much light - sunlight, florescent, or anything in between - can cause discoloration and breakdown of pleasant aromas, especially in wine stored in clear bottles. Like the temperature, lighting should stay as consistent as possible, though minor swings here and there will not adversely affect the wine. Some of the most beautiful cellars I have seen use soft white strands when light when light is necessary.
Fun fact, some darker wine bottles are UVA treated to protect the wine from exposure to the sun! While this is really cool forethought, it also highlights just how potentially damaging light is to wine.
Air - Your wine cellar needs to be humid so that corks do not begin to dry and shrink. When a cork dries out or begins to dry out, it will lose its malleability, making it difficult to remove or causing it to outright crumble into the bottle the moment your corkscrew begins to spin.
The humidity level should be higher than you would probably like it in your home. Unless you are looking at building a really specialized cellar or are storing bottles for ten years or longer, keeping the humidity between 50-80% is a range that makes corks happy but isn’t conducive to mold growing. This can be done with high end humidification systems or simply through humidifiers.
Layout - It seems that it should go without saying, but often go-without-saying points are the most overlooked, so I will emphasize this. It is a really good idea to have a layout planned before your cellar is built or filled. If however, you already have a fully built/stocked wine cellar (congratulations, you are awesome), make sure you also have an inventory of what exactly is in the cellar.
Your layout should be based on how much wine you would like to keep/store, the size and shape of the space, the temperature, light, and air zones, and who will be using the space, roughly in that order.
When designing my own cellar, I arranged the wines by price, so that the least expensive, everyday bottles were the most the accessible and the most expensive, prized bottles were sectioned to themselves, while specialized or ‘weird’ bottles occupied their own space. Each price category was then subcategorized by country, which for me, generally broke out as France, Spain, Italy, and the US. Finally, I made sure that whites were on the top to mid level shelves, reds were on mid to lower level shelves, and roses and sparklers were on the very bottom. You don’t have to do it exactly this way, but having a system really helped me to remember what was where and gave a good roadmap on how to guide others in selecting bottles.
Once you have an idea of your layout, calculate the space so that you can store bottles with corks on their sides. Doing so will help keep the corks from drying out, which as outlined above, is essential to good wine storage. You do not have to store bottles enclosed with screw caps - a style for which Australia is famous - on their side. They can remain upright if you so choose.
A typical case of wine contains twelve bottles, which occupies approximately one cubic foot.
Super helpful sub-tip: Based on the amount of room you have outside the wine cellar, considering allocating space for glass storage inside the wine cellar, as different wines really and truly do taste best out of different glasses. (Exactly why this is true is a discussion for another blog post.)
I love my wine cellar, and tweaking it and perfecting it has been a blast!! I also love showing it off, and I think it makes my bottles of wine feel good about their dark, happy home. But planning was essential, so start with the essentials!!
Happy planning and happy glaming!