Ultimate Guide to Wine Cellars

Wine cellar in Napa Valley with plenty of aging, dusty bottles.
Wine cellar in Napa Valley with plenty of aging, dusty bottles. See more wine pictures.
iStockphoto/ JVT

­S­he's rich, complex and has a full body like none other. Born of the Napa hillsides, she brings with her deep knowledge of vintner culture. No, we're not talking about your wife or a movie starlet; we're talking about Pax Wine Cellar's 2005 Syrah Obsidian [source: Pax Wine Cellars].

We all know that when wine is born, it's really just a bunch of grape juice, water, yeast and maybe some exotic spices. But it ages and ferments in tanks and barrels for months or years, and is then bottled and shipped off to be enjoyed or stored for further aging and development [source: The Olive Garden]. That's where the wine cellar comes in.


Since the days of Plato­ and his Symposium, men and women have been making, enjoying and documenting their wine, and today, wine cellars come in about as many varieties as the wine drinkers who build them.

­There's the aboveground cellar, or wine room, the underground cellar and the small cellar, which holds fewer than 500 bottles and might be known as your wine closet. And there are wine chiller or refrigerator units as well [source: Consumer Reports]. While each of these storage areas can be purchased or built to suit the collector's needs, there are two distinct differences in cellars: they can be either active or passive, meaning the temperature is controlled (active) or passive (built underground) [source: The Wine Rack Shop].

Different wines need different temps, so knowing your reds from your whites will make a difference in how you store them [source: Consumer Reports]. We'll explore the world of wine cellars in this article, and once you've developed an appreciation for it all, we'll explain how you can build your own.


Purpose of Wine Cellars

Like milk, wine can spoil, and changes in temperature or light exposur­e can increase the speed of the spoilage [source: Fraser]. Wine cellars work to protect your precious bottles from the elements, and they also give you a nice place to show off your collection and store those vintage labels. This is important, since proper storage can make all the difference in the flavor and body of your wine, and might even allow it to develop into itself as it matures. At the same time, aging a bottle for too long can ruin its subtle flavors [source:Vilim]. Since there are so many types of wine storage spaces, let's look at the traditional wine cellar and its purpose first.

For the Georgians, who appear to have been cultivating wine since around 5,000 B.C., the secret to vintner success is in the ground. Poured into jars after being harvested and mashed, the grapes and their juice were then buried in the ground until spring, when the fermented liquid was separated from the pulpy mash and re-poured into new jars to be reburied [source: Reader's Digest].


There's no need for such complicated matters when setting up your own wine cellar though: the thing to look at when selecting your storage space is whether or not you have a lot of bottles (and need a lot of space), live in a dry or wet climate (humidity effects wine), and the length of time you want to store your bottle [source: Pandell]. Depending on your needs, you can build a cellar that covers all three.

We all know that wine makes a great gift, and wine cellars provide the perfect place to put future gifts [source: Steiman]. For that special wine collector in your life, there's also a variety of accessories to be collected and relished. Our next section will introduce you to a few of them, including designer racks or shelving units [source: Wine Enthusiast].


Wine Cellar Accessories

Accessorize, accessorize. We all know that having the right accessory can p­ull together a look, a moment or even a meal. But can the right accessory really add to the wine lover's experience? Of course it can.

With everything from stemware to corkscrews to aerators and charms all ripe for the picking, there's no reason you can't add some style and spice of your own to the flavor found within the bottles you're breaking open [source: International Wine Accessories, World Market]. Let's first take a look at stemware.


Nearly as important as the wine itself, a good wineglass will help you fully appreciate the flavor, depth and aroma of your wine. As good as coffee tastes from a steamy mug on a cold morning, you'd never drink your Rioja out of a ceramic cup. A glass partially filled and held by the stem allows for the full experience of wine consumption, making the right glass will be the best accessory. From tulips to flutes, coupes and tumblers, there's a glass for every occasion, so pick the right one for the job [source: Robinson].

Your next accessory might be a smaller showy wine rack (in addition to regular shelving), which stores bottles for a short period of time and displays your obvious good taste. For the ultimate connoisseur, a wine decanter will help wine shed its sediment and grow in flavor [source: Nase]. To document your tastings, consider a wine album and record your notes on each wine's taste and the food consumed with it.

Now that you've got the look and taste for owning a wine cellar, let's see how to build one.


How to Build a Wine Cellar

Sold on cellars? Now it's time t­o dig in and build your own. Since we've already given some thought to the space, lighting and humidity needs, let's go more in-depth, starting with materials.

Some woods, like cedar, have been known to affect wine's taste and shouldn't be used for cellar walls. Mahogany is a good choice and is a favorite among contractors in the business. If you're building your cellar from scratch, check out a design-your-own web program to help draft a plan [source: Vigilant].


You'll want to make sure to insulate your walls and seal your floors against moisture (never use carpet in your cellar), making sure the "R factor" (the ability to which the insulation works against heat) is at least 19 [source: National Insulation Association, Vinotemp]. Ask your home improvement professional for a recommended sealant, and test your walls and ceiling for airflow leaks before moving on. Vapor barriers help protect against temperature fluctuations and will keep your humidity at the recommended levels, as well as help with heat retardation.

When you're satisfied with the space you've created, you'll have to add the racking units and other accessories that make your cellar yours. Keep in mind that you'll need space to move around in and the ability to close doors, so utilizing the best rack for the job can make a big difference. Your racking should allow your bottles to rest at an angle that keeps part of the cork in contact with the liquid.

Now all that's left is a popped cork and a toast to your ingenuity!


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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