At its core, a wine cellar is simply any place designated to store a collection of wine. That can range from an elaborate 8,000-bottle state-of-the-art custom enclosure featured in a design magazine, to a dugout in a damp and dingy underground cave, to a set of modular wooden racks in the corner of an unfinished basement. Traditionally a wine cellar was thought to be anything situated below ground, but today with modern construction materials and techniques, that distinction is less applicable.
While the ultimate purpose will always be to store wine (ideally under proper conditions), a cellar can also be a place to entertain guests, a beautiful object of desire to show off, a protective sanctum for a valuable investment, or any combination thereof.
Whatever use you might intend for your cellar, it is important to keep in mind that wine is a perishable product and its protection should always be paramount. Designing an aesthetically pleasing room with wine racks is one thing. Making a stunning cellar that is also fully functional is another.
You will likely be investing as much in wine as you are on your cellar, so it makes good economic sense to take efforts to protect both investments. When properly stored, age-worthy wine not only maintains its quality longer (by extending its drinking window), but as it matures, its aroma, flavor, and complexity as continue to improve.
Proper wine cellaring principles all follow the same logic: shield the wine from harmful influences. Here are the major dangers to guard against:
Wine can become damaged if subjected to extreme temperatures. If a cellar becomes too warm (in excess of 25 °C (77 °F)) for long periods of time, it may spoil or “cook” the wine. Restaurants with limited storage space are often guilty of this crime, stowing their wine in over-heated kitchens. For the same reason, a home cellar should never be built next to a fireplace or furnace.
If the cellar becomes too cold, a wine can freeze, which can play havoc with the cork and introduce oxygen into the wine, a result that can be terminal if the exposure is too great.
So what is the perfect temperature to store wine at? While this is a subject of debate among wine professionals, it is safe to say that a wine can be stored satisfactorily between 7–18 °C (45–64 °F). Some argue that the absolute perfect temperature for storing and aging wine is 13 °C (55 °F), which is approximately the same temperature found in many cellaring caves in France, but ultimately, whether or not you achieve the perfect temperature is not as important as maintaining consistency. In other words, it is better to be a little warmer (or colder) than optimal as long as your cellar is maintaining that temperature within one to three degrees. If temperature fluctuations are too drastic, you run into cork issues again and run the risk of oxidizing bottles in your collection.
Finally, a wine has a greater potential to develop complexity and a more aromatic bouquet if it is allowed to age slowly. Lower temperatures slow the aging cycle of wine, so it stands to reason that a cellar is better on the cooler side than warmer, especially if you enjoy all the wonderful tertiary characteristics that aged wine can provide.
Humidity becomes an issue for wine when conditions are excessively dry or wet, or when the relative humidity fluctuates too greatly. Under dry conditions, a cork can become susceptible to damage. This is why you should not age wine in a normal refrigerator (the lack of moisture will dry out the cork, which can increase the risk of oxidization) and why you should always position your bottles horizontally (or at an appropriate angle) to ensure that the wine is always in contact with the cork. Anything too damp and labels could be damaged, which can affect the value of investment wines.
Regulating the ambient humidity of a wine cellar is often the most challenging environmental consideration to manage, especially if the cellar is situated in a dry climate. 75% Relative Humidity is often cited as best, but anything between 50% and 75% RH is more than adequate.
Finally, maintaining good airflow and ventilation is also important, not only to keep the cellar a pleasant place to visit, but also to keep it free from persistent smells, which could affect the wine.
If you happen to own a damp basement cellar in London, or a dank cave in France, then you can build what is called a passive wine cellar (i.e., you do not have to mechanically regulate the temperature or humidity since the natural environment does all the work for you).
If, however, you happen to live in less ideal climes, you will need to build what is called an active wine cellar, which is to say you will need to take steps to actively regulate the ambient temperature and humidity (this applies to most wine cellars). This can be as simple (if not as messy) as covering your cellar floor with an inch of gravel and periodically sprinkling it with water, or as sophisticated as enclosing your space and employing a state-of-the-art climate control system. A good active wine cellar should be insulated (with thermal and vapour barriers) and employ a specialized cooling and conditioning system to maintain the desired temperature and humidity.
Wine is photo-sensitive. Light causes pigments to fade in red wines and darken in white wines. To that end, a cellar should be situated in a dark location, away from sunlight. If your cellar employs a lighting system, ensure that it is U/V-free.
Retail wine stores are notoriously bad for neglecting this aspect of proper cellar care, so always be sure to ask when you are purchasing a bottle (especially Champagne) whether or not it has been laid down under U/V-free conditions.
There is a respected line of thought that says a maturing wine should be kept free from any and all vibration. The idea is that sediment may be disturbed, which could upset the aging process. This is why you will not typically find a wine cellar built underneath a staircase.
Also, it is worth noting that one of the key differences between an entry-level wine fridge and a higher-end model is the quality of motor. Entry-level wine-fridge motors often exhibit a higher degree of vibration.
Freedom from Persistent Smells
Wine subjected to persistent smells can become tainted. Offending odors can come from the off-gassing of certain wood species, from the odor of certain finishing materials and stains, or from any other source that produces a persistent scent in the cellar (e.g., a nearby septic tank, chemical bath, etc.). Besides ruining the wine, a persistent off-putting smell can make visiting a wine cellar unpleasant at best, to uninhabitable at worst. All of Genuwine’s wine cellars employ wood species sourced specifically for their ideal wine cellaring properties and the same holds true for all of our finishing materials, stains and lacquers.
Finally, there is the issue of security, which is especially relevant for collectors interested in the world of investment wines, and even more pressing if a teenager resides in the house. From simple door locks to fingerprint recognition technology to full-scale surveillance systems, security solutions of every magnitude exist to protect a wine cellar.