Tim James: On storing (when not drinking) wine
By Tim James, 13 September 2022
Wine storage – especially that of my own wine – has been on my mind this past week. Firstly, I’ve been reminded by the coming of something approximating spring that, before it gets too warm, I need to empty and repack my increasingly incoherent wine fridges. When the slots are all individual, it’s pretty inevitable that an available one will need to be filled by a bottle that has little in common with its neighbours. It would take a degree of self-discipline unbelievably more rigorous than mine to keep perfect records.
The hurry to reconfigure is because my three main fridges are at the end of my garage; it gets hot in there in summer and when shifting them I’d rather not expose the bottles too much to that, after their coolly coddled existence. Incidentally, that heat also means, as I’ve realised, that my electricity bill is much higher in summer than winter; given that I have a woodstove in the house, my cooling expenses in warm weather are what counts most.
Second memory jogger, also on the cost side of things, is that I received my quarterly storage bill from Wine Cellar in Observatory. R2722.69 for 230 bottles for three months! That’s over ten grand for the year! It’s too much, and I must move out more of my wine, or otherwise get rid of some of it. Drinking it is a real option of course, and I do my best, but I must have about 750 bottles in various places, and it’s actually too much, given my drinking pattern and some emotional antipathy to storing stuff (I’m a chucker rather than a horder, to invoke one of the more useful differences that characterise humanity, in my experience). Wine Cellar’s storage and service is excellent, and I have nothing to complain about except that it does seem to me to be over-expensive. More expensive than I like, anyway.
Thirdly, I had lunch on Friday, with my regular lunching partner John. (We tore ourselves away from what is our current favourite, Table Seven in Salt River, and went to the perhaps even smaller Belly of the Beast on the gritty edge of central Cape Town: we much enjoyed the excellent but comparatively unrefined food and the style of the place, though I do think they could more exploit the joys of vegetables – despite their name.) My pal was telling me more about the spiral wine cellar he’s having sunk/built beneath his house, at a cost of something not hugely under half a mill – and that’s without air-conditioning, which he hopes will prove unnecessary.
That makes me envious, of course, but it’s so out of my league that, well, not too much. Anyway, I’ll have to continue with my messy, unfocused storage (and by no means mostly free – have you checked the cost of wine fridges recently?). Some bottles at home (not quite all of it in fridges); some in professional storage. I also keep some in the air-conditioned space of a hospitable Angela Lloyd; but having it there is also not entirely satisfactory.
It’s an expensive business, decent wine storage, depressingly so after one has already gone to the expense of buying the damn stuff in the first place, convinced that it’s going to repay the elevated premium by maturing beneficially for five or ten or twenty years – at further cost. Of course, with significantly expensive wines (decent burgundy and bordeaux for an obvious example, but also at the level of Sadie and Kanonkop), storage cost is a tiny part of the whole enterprise, and if one thinks in terms of “investment” it could be recovered – as has been being gleefully discovered by sellers on local wine auctions, which continue to blossom. Reputable auctioneers (like Strauss) want to be assured that storage has been good before they accept wine for sale.
Reducing the total number of bottles I worry about is a considerable possibility – and there are in fact quite a few that I think really need to be drunk up or sold: I have, for example, too many whites from Sadie and others that are over 10 years old and that I worry about, going by experience of them, and many others approaching that age (I still don’t drink nearly as much white wine as I buy).
And there’s another, pretty obvious, strategy. Cool, still, dark conditions are vital if one is wanting to properly mature wine for, say, 15 or 20 years (my oldest bottles, apart from a single GS 1966, are Paul Sauer and Welgemeend from the latter 1990s and Columella from the early 2000s, which I reckon are all still fine). But if you’re keeping wines for only five or so years after the vintage – even more when they’re pretty robust – then keeping them in a relatively cool cupboard is just fine. They’ll probably develop somewhat faster than if they were in the dungeon of a Scottish castle, but that’s probably an advantage anyway. So now to find some cupboard space. And stop acquiring.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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