Developing and maintaining a wine cellar

Developing and maintaining a wine cellar

 

If you have a passion for fine wine you can share it with your guests through conversation and perhaps keeping a few exceptional vintages in your cellar. While converting a guest’s interest in drinking a top quality wine into buying is not straightforward, the idea is made very much easier if you have a cellar on display and equipped with the right temperature and humidity controls.

There is a growing shift in attitude to wine. Not too long ago bar managers used to store their fine wine underground and seldom on display. These days people have become openly proud of their collection and they are thus bringing them above ground. Cellar Maison client consultant Simon Coombs says: “We are seeing a lot more of people actually wanting to put their wine on display and share it with their friends and family. It is also a great talking point.”

This trend casts a whole new dimension to renovation. Wine Storage Solutions managing director Roy Wilson says: “When the idea arises to establish a wine room perhaps owing to available space within a boutique hotel or luxury bed & breakfast premises, the first requirement is to insulate the entire space – the ceilings, the walls, and if it is other than a ground floor, then the floor as well.

Wine Storage Solutions normally recommends around 60mm of insulating material such as Kingspan, Celotex or equivalent. Wilson says: “Quite often these days owners want a wall to be glass so guests can look into the cellar with the lighting and thus create a feature. There is a trend of the last few years for demand for cellars that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.”

Luxury bed & breakfast managers need to consider whether the proposed location for the cellar is appropriate to start off: you don’t want any surplus heat or light anywhere near it, so there should be no underfloor heating or direct sunlight.

Wherever there is a window on the perimeter of the cellar the fitters need to know how much glass is used. “It should always be double-glazed,” he explains. “There is a danger with single-glazed that a difference in temperature may form condensation running down the glass on the warm side. When we have established the area of glass we will make a calculation as to how powerful to make the air conditioning equipment.”

In the case of a very small area the installer can get away with using a small Monobloc unit, but most rooms require a split system whereby the condensing unit, sometimes referred to as the outdoor unit, is connected to the evaporator, or the indoor unit, he explains. The two are connected by copper piping, similar to an air conditioning system that has a big ugly box on the outside and an evaporator inside.

Wilson says: “We provide three types of evaporator. Often people do not want the evaporator in view. Normally it would be positioned on the ceiling or wall of the room itself but a concealed version can be accommodated if the ceiling is tall enough with a spare 400mm you can put in a false ceiling to thus conceal the evaporator.

“If the ceiling height does not allow this then the evaporator can be fitted in an adjacent room and be ducted through into the cellar.”

The company sells bespoke racking, the most popular being solid oak racking with a Danish oil finish that makes the oak wood a golden hue.

There is also a sliding case rack, a wine cube that resembles a big cross, and individual bottle racks finished off with LED lighting usually at the top, middle and bottom.

Business interruption during installation does not need to be punitive, he says. “A wine cellar can feasibly be fitted in the space of a day. But very often we go in and do what we call a first fix, running the pipework that connects the outdoor and indoor unit – the condenser and the evaporator. If other building work is taking place that can be a good time because very often channels are being put in for air conditioning or plumbing. Very often we liaise with the architect or the builder and undertake a first fix before coming back at a later date when the building work is complete, put in the evaporator and then when the plaster work is complete we then come back a third time, double-check  the dimensions and put in the bespoke racking.”

Filling a space with a cellar that will preserve wine in the right conditions is not cheap. A small cellar could be around 10 sq m. A starting price for the display system and solid oak racking for that area would be around £15,000 excluding VAT, Wilson suggests. 

The company recommends using a split system that does not require much in the way of maintenance. He says: “After the work has been finished the customer would be contacted by the refrigeration engineer to see if they wanted to enter into a contract whereby there would be a visit twice a year to make sure that it was running perfectly and any maintenance carried out. People who are in the market for this kind of thing do not want to be having to check an evaporator for instance to see if there is any build-up of anything – they want to rely on someone to come in and do it for them, which would cost about £150 a year for the two visits.”

Boutique hotels and luxury bed & breakfast businesses often employs their own architect and therefore by the time they approach a company to develop and install the room they have already reached an idea as to what style they want and they would present. 

Equally customers ask for a transformation of a given space into something of a very high aesthetically pleasing standard and ask for recommendations. “We’d ascertain the number of cases they wanted to store if any, how many bottles, whether they wanted some of the bottles at a display angle or merely slotted horizontally to maximise the space. It is very much a matter of trial and error. Quite often we will come up with a solution and the customer will say it all looks fantastic, or that they like one part but can we change another. We can accommodate every customer’s requirements,” he says.

Wine Storage Solutions does not limit itself to designing and installing cellars. “Luxury bed & breakfast businesses are very often not looking for something on the same scale as a hotel. A good solution for them might be a couple of upright cabinets, each able to hold 200 bottles. That would come in at just under £4,000 for two – one white, one red.”

These units resemble a refrigerator jazzed up with a glass door, lighting and hardwood fronts to the shelves so they are not unpleasant to the eye. These units can be set at anything between 6 and 18 degrees Celsius. A boutique hotel might have one for white at 6 degrees and one for reds at 17 degrees. That means all their wine is perfectly ready to go, with no need to worry about bringing it down to room temperature or chilling it down if it is champagne.

Temperatures

With wine there are three temperatures that are significant. All wine – red, white, rose, sparking – should be cellared at 12 degrees Celsius.

White wine should best be served at around 8 degrees Celsius.

Champagne should be served a little cooler at 6 degrees Celsius.

Red wine is best served at 16 or 17 degrees Celsius.

 

It is important to observe that a lot of people keep their wine and champagne at home in the fridge and society in general is used to drinking white wine that is very cold, but in actual fact you don’t taste the full flavour of the wine has risen a little. A really good vintage white wine from a good producer would probably taste best around 9 degrees Celsius. If it gets served at 7 degrees Celsius then by the time it is poured into the glass it is 9 degrees Celsius and it makes all the difference.

So is the idea of letting a wine potentially breathe going to damage its premium flavour? “That’s a separate issue, but a really powerful Bordeaux relatively young but still drinkable will benefit sometimes from hours of decanting. It’s a question of the oxidisation process of the air heating the wine. It is quite a complex issue and separate from that of temperature,” says Wilson. “With a really old but good wine such as a 40-year-old Bordeaux coming towards the end of being at its best, I’d suggest not decanting it for too long since if you let it lie for a few hours it might just oxidise.”

 

Cellar maintenance

Cellar Maison looks after the ambitions of high net worth individuals and they often want someone to come along periodically to look after the collection and display. Coombs says: “We can do everything in that regard. We design them, advise what will and won’t work and when they decide we will proceed to manufacture it and then install it. 

“After that what we tend to do is work very closely with a master of wine so we can add to our clients’ experience the question of how they want to store their wines – by region, by wine roots, by vintage. We don’t just take these things off the shelf: everything is bespoke. We can then add on an inventory system and access to this master of wine, Marina Gayan who runs a company Gayan & Nathan. Often they don’t want that level of detail – they just want a reliable and attractive storage facility into which to put their wine.

“The whole experience now is much more about enjoying it, seeing it, the aesthetics.”

 

Engineering and creativity at work

For most of the installations Cellar Maison develops it keeps the red, white and sparking together at 15 degrees which for long term storage of wine is about the best temperature. “If you chill wine too low for too long you are in danger of shrinking the cork and spoiling it so we tend to have them stored together. For the red they take it out and warm it up slightly and their whites they cool them down in a small nearby fridge for a couple of hours before they need it,” Coombs says.

There are pitfalls that he advises anyone looking to install a wine room should avoid. “People often don’t know how to set up and operate the cooling correctly and how to interface that with the joinery, which is fundamental,” he says. “We blend engineering and creativity together and doing so without anything looking out of place such as pipework sticking out. These cellars have to be fit for purpose and looking around the marketplace at others’ models a lot of times they just aren’t.

“All the guys who work with us know how the systems work together. Sometimes you find a carpenter who does not quite understand how a cooling guy does something. Cooling is fundamental: it’s even air flow letting the hot air out and the cold air in but doing so evenly, having sections cut out that allow air to flow – it’s all those nuances that really make a difference.”

 

View from the designer

Jordan Design is a central London-based luxury hospitality and retail design agency whose work in designing wine displays includes Le Clos wines shop-in-shop in downtown Dubai, a duty-free fine wine border store in Puttgarden, Germany, and a window display in the Emirates first class lounge at Dubai airport, for which it used exaggerated Alice-in-Wonderland perspective to recreate in a confined space the distinctive front of the prestigious store opposite St James’ Palace in London.

If you decide to commission a designer for your wine cellar, owner Ben Jordan says the first thing to clarify when you decide to install a wine cellar is the main reason you actually want one. “Of course you have some fine wines that you want to keep in peak condition so that they mature nicely without drying out or getting damp, but beyond that most people with such ambitions also want to do something else, and something to show off,” he says.

Jordan Design designed the flagship Dunhill store in St James’s, the landlord of which happened to be wine merchant Berry Bros. “We had to design a humidor for cigars, and that was all about understanding how to build a temperature and humidity controlled environment. In designing a wine cellar, it’s valuable to celebrate the science behind it.”

For example you may have temperature-controlled hygrometers, which are instruments to measure water vapour in the atmosphere. Jordan says: “If I were wishing to charge very high prices for rare and exceptional wine, I’d want to make it very evident that the conditions within that cellar or wine storage enclosure is very controlled. You would thus have on show all the dials – the evidence that is really is being controlled.” 

He is strongly resistant to the idea that a wine cellar should reflect the age of the designing the wine cellar in the style of the original premises. “My inclination would to make it look quite modern, using for example glass and metal. 

“Everyone suggests using oak, which is precisely why I wouldn’t use it, because that’s what you’d expect. I’d use something that the punters wouldn’t expect, but which was still of very high quality such as a beautifully lacquered rosewood or even black steel. Typically cellars in the homes of high net individuals comprise natural materials juxtaposed alongside modern materials.

People often tend to want a design that is the expected design, in this case oak, he says. “If you are going to design something you may as well give it an edge, a bit of attitude. If it looks normal and what you’d expect you’re not going to notice it, whereas if it looks slightly unusual or unexpected then you immediately get people’s antennae going. In the BA first class lounge there used to be a very high-tech glass wall within which was a range of very fine wines, which is a good example of juxtaposing a 1962 Chateau Lafitte with plate glass and steel.” 

So what about a luxury bed & breakfast that is Tudor through and through with a modern wine space right next to the bar for example. That would be a clash wouldn’t it? “No it wouldn’t!” he exclaims. 

“Look at the way the Italians go about design when they have an old wreck of a castle and they are putting in a restaurant or a museum, and that’s exactly what they do: they put very modern against the very ancient, and if it is done properly it looks really good. The last thing you want to do is try to blend in a new structure with the old structure. That’s never going to look anything other than an attempt to make it look like something it isn’t. Instead make it useful but modern,” he concludes.