How to Stock Your Wine Cellar

Tips on what to buy—and how many bottles. Prayitno Photography on Flickr

For me, the in-house wine cooler—the kind we discussed over here—whether it has space for 24 bottles or 48, is mostly for what you're going to drink soon. It's filled with wine for weeknight dinners and festive dinner parties, special occasions, and bottles to bring to friends. It's where you keep your wine safely at home for the short to medium-term, but it's not enough space for gathering a long-term collection. If you've really gotten into wine and you want to stash some away to drink at its peak in 5 or 10 or even 20 years, then we're talking about a bigger cellaring project.

The basics, at some level, are the same. If you're buying wine to drink later, you want to store it around 55 degrees, give or take. You want the temperature not to fluctuate too much. You want to avoid too much vibration, and you want moderate humidity to keep corks moist. You probably already know that stuff. But what sort of cellar space makes sense? What kinds of wine should you put in there? How many bottles of each? I gathered advice from wine pros around the country to answer these questions about getting your wine cellar started.

Do You Need a Cellar at All?

A wine cellar serves a few purposes. We won't be talking about wine as a financial investment here—for us, wine is for drinking, not selling. Having a cellar means that you have on hand that you want to drink, without having to go shopping. It also means you can secure the wines that might not be available at your local wine shop the next time you look—maybe they're bottles you can only buy straight from the winemaker or from a mailing list, maybe they're something that's made in small quantity or rarely available. If you have a safe cellaring space, you can buy a case to last you awhile.

But perhaps most importantly, a cellar is about aging wine. If you haven't spent much time drinking wines that have aged in the bottle, gather some friends together and seek out some wines that have aged. Explore a little, and take your time. If you get excited when to taste old wines, then cellaring might be for you. "Wine is a living thing—which makes it both fascinating and unpredictable," says sommelier Courtney Humiston of Charlier Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, CA. "The joy of aging wine is discovering how the fruit from a single year can continue to evolve for decades." If you prefer the fresh, juicy flavor of wines that have been recently released, then it could be that you should devote your resources elsewhere.

If you explore your best local shop (and online resources), and do some wine-travel, you will likely get to taste and buy some aged wines. Some, like Rioja, are easier to find than others. One reason to have a cellar, says importer Terry Theise, "is to own wines you feel grow markedly better with age, but which can rarely be bought with the age they need—so you do it yourself. Simple example: you like Chablis, you really like it when it's 10 years old, so you identify a vintage you're especially partial to (2010 for me) and buy some wine for laying down."

Where Should Your Cellar Be?

"The in-home wine cellar is the raided-at-the-end-of-every-dinner-party wine cellar"

If you are lucky enough to have a cool, dark basement or chilly area under your stairs, figuring out where to put your wine collection might be easy. But many wine pros argue that temperature-controlled offsite storage is a better idea. My first bite of Slopper was pretty glorious" says Alex Finberg, who represents the Louis/Dressner, Rosenthal, and Jose Pastor wine portfolios in Northern California. Erin Sullivan of Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena recommends that you try a bottle early on to determine what you think and how long you'd like to age any other bottles you have, "and then hide the rest! For this purpose, I like offsite storage. The temptation to pull a cork can be too great for wine lovers like us. Out of sight, out of mind is key for accomplishing this goal, at least for me...."

How Much to Buy

Heather Moss on Flickr

Most wine pros recommend buying at least three bottles of anything you want to cellar. "Don't buy one bottle at a time. You'll never drink them. And if one is corked it will be the saddest day of your life, having toted around that useless time-bomb of misery around with you for years. Buy at least three of anything," says sommelier Steven Grubbs of Empire State South in Atlanta. If you have a few bottles, you can get to know the wine over the years as it develops, and have a replacement on hand if a bottle is flawed.

You might want to pick a focus for your purchases: "Pick one or two things you love and buy those regularly," says sommelier Jackson Rorhbaugh of Aragona in Seattle. "It's more fun to understand a few regions or producers in depth than it is to tackle everything. Pick a village in Burgundy and buy three different producers' wines from the same vintage."

On the other hand, winemaker Steve Matthaisson sees every dollar you spend on wine as an opportunity to try something different: "We almost never drink the same wine twice—each bottle of wine is a learning opportunity, and we try to drink as widely as possible."

Check Yourself

While wine experts can recommend general categories of wine that will develop nicely with age, before you go all out on a cellar-stocking spree, you should do a little self-reflection. Importer Terry Theise urges: "Think hard about how and what you actually eat at home. Don't buy a bunch of (let's say) Côte Rotie, even if you really like Côte Rotie, if you almost never eat red meat at home. Buy for your actual life, not for some ideas you've formed about the wines you admire, or that your friends admire."

Many wine lovers regret buying too much at the start, and then finding that their tastes changed over time. "Follow what you like to begin, but never stop challenging your notions of what's 'good' and what's 'bad'," says sommelier Jeremy Quinn of Telegraph in Chicago. Steven Grubbs agrees that over time, collectors tend to find joy in what are widely considered 'ageworthy classics': "Barolo/Barbaresco, Burgundy, etc. Go ahead and get some of those even if you aren't yet into them," Grubbs says.

Basic Qualities You're Looking For

What wines are worth storing for years before you drink? To over-simplify, it comes down to acid and structure. A cellarable wine doesn't need to be a super-expensive bottle: in fact, a producer's simple entry-level wine might be a haunting bombshell after a decade. Perhaps the tannin was a little intense and the wine seemed tightly laced at first—ten years later it can be soft and fine, as layers of earthy flavors have developed and the fruit has softened. For some, it comes down to just one quality: "People try to say it's about a lot of things, but really, if there's acid, then the wine will at least survive, if not get better," says Collin Casey of Weygandt Metzler Importing.

Wines with residual sugar as well as that all-important acid are a particularly popular category for collectors. Over time, says sommelier Carla Rzeszewski, "They begin to appear drier than they once were, and that trajectory is a magical one, in my opinion."

White Wines to Cellar

Old Bottles in the Schloss Gobelsburg Cellar
You don't have to age them this long. Maggie Hoffman

With those basics in mind, what are a few categories of white wines that will likely do well in the cellar?

Riesling is a slam dunk. "German, Austrian, and Alsatian Rieslings seem impermeable to time's pressures and most seem to only improve with ten years of age," says sommelier Jordan Salcito of Momofuku in New York. Some are gorgeous for decades. "With riesling, it would be easy to look to the Mosel and you would definitely be rewarded. But don't forget the Pfalz (Burklin-Wolf and Muller-Catoir), the Rheingau (Kloster Eberbach and Robert Weil), or the Wachau (Lagler and Knoll)," says sommelier Stacey Gibson of Portland's Olympic Provisions.

Chenin Blanc is another sommelier favorite. "Foreau Vouvray Demi-Sec is a no brainer," says Alex Finberg, also noting the cellar-worthiness of good sparkling Vouvray. Erin Sullivan of Acme Fine Wines puts a word in for another source of Loire Chenin: "Francois Chidaine is my LIFE. I buy these wines to age and unfortunately I break my own rules and pull corks too soon, I just love Chenin and these wines too much."

Looking for Chablis or white Burgundy? "Anything from Patrick Piuze rocks the HOUSE (or your cellar)," says Stevie Stacionis of Bay Grape in Oakland. "He's a rising star working fastidiously with killer vineyards in Chablis." Erin Sullivan says you'll need to "drop some coin and age as long as possible," but she loves Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne, and recommends Dominique Lafon for really delicious wine at a slightly better price point. (Importer Terry Theise notes that "If you want White Burgundy type wines that actually will age and cost you two-thirds less," the answer is Gruner Veltliner from Austria.)

Not everyone is on board, but several of our sources love aging Muscadet. Sullivan points to Domaine de la Pepiere as a favorite: "This wine ages like a total boss." Collin Casey concurs: "Muscadet is the most rewarding wine you can possibly cellar. Pepiere Clos des Briords at 20 years old is one of the most rewarding old wines I've ever drunk...I personally find the dense, super-complex, almost Burgundian aged Muscadet profile to be profound. They're great young too, obviously, but yeah... In terms of cheap wine that you can age, Muscadet is insane."

If you're a Champagne lover, it's likely you can predict more than a few occasions each year when you'd like to have a good bottle around. Importer Terry Theise is a big advocate of cellaring Champagne: "The wine you lay down 4-5 years beyond its disgorgement will be twice the wine you paid for, when you finally open it," he says. Erin Sullivan named a few favorites to age: "Paul Bara, Vilmart, Pierre Peters, and André Clouet 1911. The Jacques Lassaigne wines imported by Louis/Dressner are a current favorite of mine. Their current release of their 'Le Cotet' is made with additional bottles of '02, '04 and '06 added to the cuvée, so some wine in that blend has been fermented and refermented five times."

Red Wines to Cellar

It's rare to find a wine fanatic who doesn't hoard Nebbiolo. But not all bottlings age the same. "Beware of oaky, ripe Barolo crus and anything over 14% ABV," says Alex Finberg. "Often an estate's 'normale' releases and or cheaper Nebbiolo from Alba or the Langhe are better for the cellar: higher acid, lower alcohol and oak. More alpine Nebbiolo appellations like Ghemme and Boca are increasingly wiser decisions with the scourge of climate change and score chasing in name brand appellations," Finberg warns. Lucky for us, those entry-level releases are cheaper, too. Finberg urges everyone to explore other Italian reds, too: "More than any other country in the world, the wines are frequently released WAY too young and before their time. The bloody sourness of Chianti, the impenetrable tannin of Barolo, the opaqueness of Teroldego—these are all products of prematurity. Cellaring tannic but unoaked/lightly oaked Italian red wines offers perhaps the best opportunity for 'sleeping beauty' red wine collecting—and a real learning experience."

Cabernet Franc from Chinon is another favorite that's beautiful fresh and even more beautiful with age. When I tasted a bottle of Olga Raffault 'Les Picasses' from 1989 at a restaurant a few years back, I knew I wanted to track down more of this wine. Bottles from 2002 were selling for about $25 on sale, and a half-case quickly found itself into my possession. "Cabernet Franc is the Riesling of red wine: cheap and built for the cellar," says Alex Finberg. Grab some.

Everyone we spoke to urged those starting a cellar to chat with a professional before going too deep in Burgundy (and some even called it a 'money pit), but Collin Casey insisted: "Burgundy is one of the most legendarily age-worthy wines in creation, and while taking a gamble on a wine you've never heard of can be risky, I've never had Burgundy from a great grower surprise me in virtually any way...Buy Burgundy at vintage (buying old wine actually is risky) and from great growers whose wines you trust. Buy Bourgogne rouge all the way up through the cru stuff, only very rarely bothering with Grand Cru. Depending on the vintage, some will be accessible earlier than others. I recommend growers who make hyper-structured stuff first (like Michel Lafarge) and mix in stuff like Gouges and De Montille that's softer in its youth. That way, you'll have something to drink early on. Your Dujac and Lafarge will live forever and your De Montille reds will pretty much drink whenever you want them."

And what about domestic reds? "We do keep adding reds from domestic wineries like Arnot-Roberts, Ryme, Demuth-Kenos, and Forlorn Hope to our time capsule, and the classically structured Napa cabs like Togni, Ritchie Creek, Mayacamas, Corison, etc.," notes winemaker Steve Matthaisson. Erin Sullivan adds: "I buy these domestic Cabs to age. They are above my average price point for weeknight drinking, but after trying versions of these houses' offerings with 10, 20+ years of bottle age, I feel confident socking a few away at a time: Forman, Spottswoode, Farella, and Corison. Also to consider: the best aged California wines I've tried in recent memory came from vintages that critics panned on release."

And Other Cellar-Worthy Wines

Of course, there are more great wines to cellar than those listed above. Some of our advisors cellar Bordeaux and wines from the Northern Rhone such as Saint Joseph. Others sock away Jura wines, Cru Beaujolais, Assyrtiko from Greece, and Semillon from Australia. Sweet and fortified wines are their own world of exploration. While Rioja ages beautifully, you can find a fair amount of already-aged wines on the market, so you can grab them to drink now while you wait on your cellar. Because it's gonna be awhile.