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CELLARING AND SERVING WINE

How to get the Best from Fine Wine

The enjoyment of sharing good wine is never greater than when the wines that you chose and purchased years ago turn out to have matured magnificently in your cellar. Decanted and served in fine glasses with good food, such wines epitomise the rewards of patience.

Cellaring

A few bottles on display in the dining room; a few cases under the bed, stairs or house; a specially built temperature-controlled, underground room; all of these are wine cellars.

Red wine will develop and improve in the bottle for the short, medium, or long term depending on the style of the wine and the quality of the particular vintage. Although some white wines will also benefit from (usually short-term) cellaring, most are best enjoyed when relatively young.

Wine is best stored somewhere cool, dark, airy, and free from major vibrations and dampness. A cellar need not be under the house.

Temperature

If you intend to mature wines for 5, 10, 15 years or more, temperature is the single most important factor of wine cellaring. Constant temperature is crucially important. Temperature changes (especially rapid change in temperature) cause corks to expand and contract, allowing air to enter the bottle. There is no surer way to create oxidisation of the wine and thus render the wine undrinkable. Suitable temperatures for storing wine are between 11ºC to 17ºC but several degrees either side of this are safe.

Maturation

Accelerating the maturation of the wine may seem desirable however; wines aged more slowly at say 15ºC will have greater complexity. Wine stored at high temperature even for a short time will negatively affect the wine. It is strange therefore that that this is the typical temperature inside most licensed restaurants and specialist wine shops. Older, more fragile wines are most likely to suffer by hot or fluctuating temperatures. The higher the temperature, the less time is required to damage the wine. Just a short exposure to a temperature of say 30ºC or above will almost certainly destroy any wine.

The ideal cellar temperature is 15ºC (58-60 degrees Fahrenheit). Although from the evidence that wines can be stored successfully at different temperatures, it is now evident that the single most important factor is temperature stability. Therefore the ideal cellar is kept at a temperature that doesn’t vary too much during the day, or even from season to season. More than 1 degree Celsius per day is cause for concern as is more than 3-4 degrees Celsius between the high and low point of the year.

Humidity

It is crucially important to monitor humidity within the cellar. The ideal humidity level for wine is between 62.5% and 72.5%. Most wine cellars suffer from lack of humidity (especially air conditioned cellars), which leads to corks drying out, shrinking and eventual wine leakage and oxidisation. Placing some warm water in a large tray on the cellar floor can help treat lack of humidity. A very high level of humidity (say too long a time at above 75%) will cause labels to fall off and; if there is no/low level of air movement, will cause mould to grow on corks and labels. Mould is devastating for wine. Therefore, an ideal environment for wine not only pays attention to temperature control but also ensures air flow and humidity control.

Light

A cellar should be as dark as possible as wine is badly affected by light. Light can cause undesirable chemical reactions within the bottle and often spoil the wine. UV light can cause hydrogen sulphide compounds to develop in wine. Therefore, the ideal lighting conditions for a cellar is no sunlight and all lighting (globes and tubes) to be UV FREE.

All Lighting at MW wines cellars is kept to an absolute minimum and is provided by special UV FREE light globes that are turned off when not in use.

Vibration

Much is said by many about vibration and the negative effect it has on wine however, MW wines is not aware of any study that has been done anywhere in the world documenting any data on this subject. Suffice to say that minor vibrations are not likely to be a problem and major vibrations should be avoided (just in case).

As virtually, no conditions exist that is 100% vibration free (in so far as even minor air flow through an open window or any minor sound creates some degree of vibration), MW Wine Storage maintains a “virtual” vibration free environment.

Water

Cellars that are flooded out (especially underground cellars) are an all too common occurrence causing substantial damage to the wines. A good wine cellar will be designed to protect against flooding. At MW WINE CENTRE the floor level of our cellars is well above ground level and thus if any internal flooding were to befall upon us (practically impossible, certainly unlikely), the water would simply drain away immediately to the outside lower point.

Air Flow

Adequate airflow in wine cellars will prevent almost all unwanted vermin and mould. Whilst extreme amounts of dry air movement could logically dry out corks, very cold air (say below 5°C) will likely chill the wine and prevent a slow balanced maturation. MW’s climate control system is specifically designed to ensure gentle but present humidity controlled air movement, at the appropriate – not too much – not too little, level.

Unwanted Pests

MW has heard of (and seen) good wine collections badly affected by unwanted pests such as snails, insects, vinegar fly, moths (worse cork moths), mice, beetles, ants, spiders, birds etc.

MW wine cellars are designed and maintained to be 100% pest free.

Cellar Size

It is remarkable how much wine can fit into a relatively small space, especially if you use a simple wooden or metal racking system, which will keep wines well ventilated, and provide easy single-bottle access. Bottles should be stored on their sides so that the cork remains wet with the label facing up so that you need not disturb a wine to identify it. And, do not believe anyone who tells you that wine bottles should be turned periodically. This is absolute nonsense.

If you have lots of wine and nowhere appropriate to store it at home, you could rent a suitable storage locker from a specialised and reputable storage outfit. In most cities around the world, you will find specialised wine storage facilities are available. Reputable wine merchants should be able to provide advice as to suitable storage suppliers.

When is a wine at its best?

There is no simple answer to this question, because so many factors are involved. Do you like a wine to retain some of its richness? Or do you prefer the gentle, mellow, softer complexity of a fully mature wine? Not an easy choice. What style is it? A great and powerful Penfolds Grange or a more subdued elegant Henschke Hill of Grace may need 10 to 15 years in bottle to even begin to show it's best, or an easy-drinking Penfolds 389 that may drink very well after a couple of years?

Whatever your level of wine experience, the best answer is to trust your own palate, taste a wine regularly to see how it is developing and judge when it reaches a point at which you really enjoy drinking it. If you have one case of 12 bottles, a typical pattern might be to drink two or three bottles while the wine is developing, six to eight bottles over the year or until you feel it is at its peak, with two or three bottles left over to satisfy your curiosity about its longer-term potential. With another wine, of course, you might try one bottle and decide not to open another for another five years.

Bear in mind that your wine will tend to mature more quickly if your cellaring conditions are not ideal. Also note that half-bottles mature more quickly (probably about twice a fast as bottles and magnums (1.5 litres) more slowly (probably half as fast as standard 750ml bottles).

Serving Temperature

Generally speaking, the warmer the wine the more volatility it gives off and up to a point the more flavour it seems to have. There is however an upper limit and a wine that is served too hot (say at 22 degrees Celsius or above) will start the irreversible process of turning acetic and breaking down.

If you want to experience as much as possible what the wine has to offer, good and bad, then it is best to taste the bottle when it is cool to the touch, but not cold; say at a "cellar temperature" of say 14 to 18 degrees Celsius (59 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit) is ideal. Do not be concerned if this means cooling your reds in the refrigerator prior to serving. Whilst not ideal, this is preferable than drinking them too hot.

It has become custom to chill all white wines. What determines if a wines flavour is suitable for chilling is the amount of body in the wine. The more full-bodied a wine is, the warmer it will need to be before the esters and the aldehydes vaporise to yield its flavour. The lighter it is, the more easily volatiles are given off. Because white wines tend to be lighter than red whites, generally chilling them is preferable, however no wines are at their best over-chilled and the more massive white wines will be spoilt by over chilling.

Opening the Bottle

Removing the cork from a bottle of good red requires a little care, which the wine deserves. Start off with a good corkscrew, one that is simple to operate. The best corkscrews pull the cork straight up out of the bottle (without dragging it sideways, like the so-called "waiter's friend").

Cut the capsule on the ridge just below the top of the bottle and clean off any residue that has collected under the capsule. Screw down well into the cork until just the tip of the corkscrew is visible at the bottom. If you go fully through the bottom you could push a broken piece of cork into the wine and thus removal may disturb the sediment that might be adhering to the bottom of the cork. Remove the cork slowly. Carefully wipe off any remaining residue inside the rim with a clean cloth. For very old corks a tip is to use two corkscrews at the same time to pull out the cork. This is almost a certain way to remove old corks completely and trouble free.

Decanting

There are two good reasons to decant a wine, they are; for older wines to separate the clear wine from any sediment or "crust" that has formed in the bottle as the wine has aged. For older and young wines it is to stimulate or enliven the wine by exposing it to air and giving it a chance to "breathe".

"Double-decanting" is an excellent solution for big closed wines as it gives the wine a double dose of air. Older bottles should be stood up for a few hours (even a couple of days, if possible) and carried carefully from the cellar to the table so that any sediment is not disturbed. Open the bottle and pour the wine into a decanter (or jug) in a single, continuous stream with a minimum of "glugging" (to avoid stirring up the sediment).

If you like, you can use a candle or light underneath the bottle to see when the sediment enters the shoulder, but it is easier, if you have a marked jug, simply to stop pouring when the wine reaches the 720ml mark. Discard the last 30ml and rinse any remaining sediment out of the empty bottle with warm water. Now pour the decanted wine back into the bottle (a funnel is helpful).

It is clear that younger wines benefit most from decanting and breathing, which "opens them up". There are no rules here – just a lot of trial and error. Generally, 2-4 hours decanting for a young wine is ideal however, some claim up to 8 hours is ideal for many younger wines. For older wines, time to decanter is a more volatile decision. It is wise to taste the wine say every 30 minutes and if it is deemed to be at its peak and still a while before a wine will be served, the bottle should be loosely recorked or the decanter seal placed at the top. This is recommended for very old wines, which, may deteriorate quickly once exposed to air. Moreover, if you have a beautiful crystal decanter, pour the wine into it, rather than back into the bottle.

The origins of decanting emanated from the days when wines were made with a considerable amount of sediment and the primary purpose was to avoid this heavy deposit being poured into the glass. However not all wines will benefit from decanting and remember that wine and too much air do not make a very good mix. The argument for decanting to improve the flavour of a wine is based on the theory that small amounts of air already present in the bottle react with the wine to make it develop into something more complex therefore by decanting a wine would aerate it, thereby accelerating the ageing process of the wine and improving the bouquet. On the other hand some experts argue that the effects of too much aeration can be harmful by exposing a delicate bouquet to air and that the interesting reactions between oxygen and wine are too complicated to be sped up. All that can happen is that the wine starts to oxidise too fast and therefore deteriorates.

We suggest that you decant young, big and closed wines some time before drinking them. For old wines where sediment is evident decant them just before serving. If once the wine has been poured, it is obvious that it is a bit tight and would benefit from more aeration, simply swirl it around in the glass, which is even more effective than the decanting process.

>The Right Glasses

Glassware can make a big difference to the way a wine tastes. Try the same wine out of a thick glass tumbler and a fine, thin-walled Riedel wine glass. The wine will always taste better out of the right shape and quality glass. Expert opinion is growing that these differences in taste are not merely psychological.

While there are many different glass designs, they tend to be driven by fashion rather than the needs of serious wine drinkers. Nevertheless some companies, notably Riedel, have developed fine glasses that are the correct size, shape and colour clearly to enhance the taste of particular wine styles.

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