Wine has its origins in the Caucasus: a 6,100-year-old winery recently found in an Armenian cave is believed to be the world’s oldest. Wine culture more recently, though, evolved in western Europe, with a synthesis of propitious vineyard sites, well-adapted grape varieties, winemaking skill and endeavour – and drinkers prepared to pay handsomely for the best. In wine, the ability to acquire harmony and beauty with age helps define “the best”. Hence the importance long attached in Europe to subterranean cellars: places where fine wines could ripen to perfection.
Palaces, castles, mansions, granges, townhouses: few residences created for the significant or the prosperous in Europe were complete, until relatively recent times, without a cellar. The only exceptions were those built on hard rock, such as granite, or in areas with a high water-table or flood risk. The cool, damp climate conditions of the temperate UK, in particular, were suitable for wine storage, and much of the world’s privately owned fine-wine stocks are at present UK-stored, notably at the Octavian Vaults, a vast underground facility at Corsham in Wiltshire.
Cool, humid, dark and vibration-free conditions are duplicated in the cellars of many larger private houses. The classic brick-built Victorian underground cellar, divided into bins and adequately ventilated, is often both beautiful and admirably functional. Adequate but not excessive humidity is key: excessively damp air is no bad thing for the wines but it can leave labels mould-affected and damaged, and the startling rise in prices for fine wines in the past decade means that any imperfection will reduce resale value. Perfect cellaring means a constant year-round temperature, only obtainable in very deep (or air-conditioned) cellars. But provided there is little day-to-day variation then a difference between winter and summer of a few degrees in a cool cellar (10°C to 15°C/50°F to 59°F) will not damage wines.
Modern houses, of course, are customarily built without cellars. The simplest solution for building a “true” cellar is to install a spiral cellar: these are pre-cast cylindrical units which are inserted into an excavated hole in a house or a garage. The wine is stored in bins sited around the sides of the unit and under the steps; capacity varies from 650 to 1,870 bottles. Some 3,000 of these units have been installed in the UK, and more than 20,000 in France, where the system was invented. Their advantage is cost (£15,402-£24,480), and the fact that installation is not overly disruptive; disadvantages are that wines need to be unpacked to be stored efficiently, and when the units are full it is not easy to get wines in and out, as they are unracked.
The best solution is to undertake a basement conversion which, depending on the space and budget, might also include other living spaces such as a home cinema, gym or swimming pool. Basement conversions offer potentially perfect storage, since temperature and humidity levels can be fixed at ideal levels, complete darkness is easy to achieve and the cellar can be fitted to suit the collection – with, for example, case-racking systems on sliding drawer units providing easy access to every box in a vertical stack for collections dominated by Bordeaux. The only disadvantage is cost: £80,000-£1m, according to conversion company London Basement. But the fact that the as-yet-unbottled 2009 Bordeaux first growths trade at £8,000-£15,000 per single case makes even sums of this order look like a reasonable investment.
Octavian: tel: +44 (0)1225 818714; www.octavianvaults.co.uk
Spiral Cellars: tel: +44 (0)845 241 2768; www.spiralcellars.co.uk
London Basement: tel: +44 (0)208 847 9449; www.londonbasement.co.uk