Enjoy every wine at its best - build (or buy) a cellar

Cellar - Tyson Stelzer

By Robyn Lewis
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Classic Cellars - Wine Storage Solutions

Classic Cellars - Wine Storage Solutions [©Classic Cellars]

Tasting in a wine cellar, Hunter Valley.
Tyson Stelzer - Australian wine expert

Tyson Stelzer is a young wine writing, tasting and publishing phenomenon, who is rising to fame as surely and steadily as Halley's Comet. I've never met anyone in the world of wine with such single-minded focus, pleasant determination, combined with such modesty about his obviously immense knowledge. He's a trained scientist and teacher, and it shines in his approach and every word.

Enough praise - you'll have to wait until I finish transcribing our interview for the rest! But Stelzer is also a practical man, skilled in home renovation and woodwork (sigh), and (sorry gals) a new husband and father. He also lives in Brisbane, whose climate is not known for kindness to wines. So, with new baby in mind, Tyson, his wife and 5000 bottles of wine recently moved house.

Needless to say it was selected not only for child-friendliness but for cellaring potential - to store his wine collection and to handle numerous tasting samples, and to maintain some separation between family life and work (yes, tasting wine is work, when you have lots to taste and write up every day). But not everyone has the luxury or is at the stage of life where a move can be contemplated to accommodate an ever-expanding taste for aged wines. So, what to do?

Cellar is perhaps the second book in Australia to address this question. The first was also by Stelzer, Cellaring Wine: do-it-yourself solutions, which he published in 2003. A lot has changed since then, most notably the huge increase in use and acceptance of screwcaps - the mechanical antioxidant -  which mean that wines no longer have to be stored on their sides to prevent deterioration. Wine quality has also continued to improve, so the dividends of keeping wines to mature and further enhance flavours have also increased, whilst the risk is diminished. We also know a lot more about what we're buying, and its potential to develop vs drink now.

No longer do cellars have to be dusty holes festooned with spiderwebs and mould. Indeed, unless you live in Tasmania or somewhere unaffected by global warming, they shouldn't be. Air conditioning or some form of climate control is now a must from Melbourne northwards. Just like computers and chocolate, wines do not perform well in extremes of heat or cold, although their tolerance range is more limited than the average laptop's, being around 14-16C. What is even worse for wines are temperature fluctuations, of the sort caused by the afternoon sun on a northwest-facing brick wall, insulated again night cold by only a metal rolladoor (the perfect description of my own Brisbane cellar, um, garage,  when I lived there.... needless to say I drank my wines rather younger then).

Cellars today rely on air-conditioning and refrigeration, and often an architect's hand as well, if you are fortunate enough to be able to design around it. I've just been in one that was spiralled around a central underground watertank, conserving both resources beautifully. The other big change in the past four years - and as I've moved to Tasmania I'll have to take Tyson's word for it - is that the cost of airconditioning and refrigeration has plummeted, 'making a climate-controlled cellar a feasible option for everyone'. Today, he assures us that you can buy a wine 'fridge' from virtually any department store, often for under A$200 (and which is far better for the environment and electricity bill than your old beer fridge, which really should be recycled by now).

The book is about making the most of every bottle you drink. Most wines over A$10-15 a bottle do improve with some age; the eternal question is, for how long? In general, the better/more expensive the wine, the longer it might keep.... to a point when it plateaus, and then declines into old age, some more gracefully than others. I won't even attempt to open that debate now, but the most important factor in ageing wines - and certainly if you are buying wines for investment, or at auction - is how (and where) were they cellared?

You don't need to resort to commercial cellaring solutions, unless you have a vast collection and live in the CBD, or have just won first prize in a massive wine raffle and have suddenly acquired 40+ dozen high-quality wines. Setting up the right conditions is not as difficult as you might think, especially if you have Tyson's handman skills or know someone who does. Even if you collection is only two or three dozen, it's worth it to get it right, for just like a pot-plant your wines will grow and develop if you treat them right, and wilt and die if you don't.

Humidity is the next most important factor after temperature, for wines that still have corks, prone to drying out. That said, I've drunk 25+ year old wines with corks that are so shrivelled and loose they could be pulled out with my fingers, and the wines remained stunning, but that is more a testament to the inherent quality of Tahbilk marsanne and will not be the general case, especially with reds which can oxidise faster than an ageing madam. Most wine fridges have humidity control, although on the forums we see much debate about which brands perform better and variations between back and front and top and lower shelves. Tyson's home (room) solution is a large bucket full of water with a towel hanging out like a wick; mine is the somewhat more aesthetic porous terracotta urn, remembering to keep it filled with water of course, and the floor protected.

Cellar then contains a section on what type of wines are good to put away. Amongst whites, Stelzer favours those with acidity, but I'll disagree with him on the inability of gewurtztraminer to age - I've tried quite a few examples between 10-20 years old which have been absolutely stunning (but they were all cool-climate producers), and indeed I've started collecting Tasmanian ones for this purpose - before the vines all get pulled out due to their low and uneconomic yields -  along with marsanne and roussannes from Victoria. Semillons, especially those from the Hunter and perhaps Margaret River,  are the great white wine agers, along with cool climate Rieslings.

As for reds, we all agree on having lots of cabernet sauvignon as 'the king of the cellar', and shiraz for at least 8-10 years, with good ones lasting for 20. Personallly I find many Austrlian reds go a bit flat and tired around 10 years, and won't improve much thereafter; they're mellow but have lost their fruit. Pinot noir - the cooler climate origin the better - is an exception; we recently drank the last of the 1992 vintage which was exceptional, and '96 is currently drinking very well.

Entire books have been devoted to this subject, and Cellar is only a slim volume. It moves on to sections on wine thermometers, converting old fridges to cellars with the aid of electric fans, the pros and cons of weldmesh and how to stop compressors vibrating your wine. Glass doors on your cellar cabinet may look cool but the light is bad for your wine; Stelzer suggests UV tinting. He even has a A$4.50 solution for aircon units that freeze up in areas of high humidity, and is obviously a dab hand with a drill and soldering iron.

No matter what the outcome of your cellaring experiments, you'll always learn something about wine. But never forgotten is the point of cellaring - that good wines can become great, and the enjoyment of such treasures, especially in the company of appreciative friends - is one of life's great pleasures. Tyson's new cellar also houses a large tasting table,  for this very purpose.

 

Cellar is published by Winepress, Brisbane (2007). RRP A$16.95. Cellar is available from our book partners, Seekbooks for 12.5% discount  (postage extra).

From Winepros Archive: Read Tyson Stelzer's account of how Guigal built a two hectare cellar adjacent to the Rhone RIver - and installed an anti-vibration system to counter the effect of the main road directly overhead »

 

 

 

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  • Brisbane and Scenic Rim (including Mt Cotton) (QLD)
  • South East Queensland (QLD)

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