- Author Joshua Elias
- Photographer James Morgan
Alquimie Editor-in-Chief Joshua Elias explores the workings of a personal wine cellar: its curiosities and nostalgia.
A personal wine cellar is a curated space; an arrangement of bottles that romanticise time—past, present and future. The artefacts within a cellar take on an entirely new meaning by virtue of being arranged. This is not to suggest that in compiling a wine cellar, we recreate the works of artist Tony Cragg—a man famous for his sculptural arrangements of spiralling glass bottles. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that a personal cellar cannot help but take on new meaning by virtue of being under our vinous custody. There is a special relationship between cellar and owner that overrides the meaning of any single bottle.
The various fabrics that make up a cellar space are infinite: a staircase, a cave, a cabinet, a cavern, a cupboard or basement. Historically, the inability to moderate temperature above ground has encouraged the creation of cellars below the Earth’s surface; where humidity remains high and temperature remains low. These two factors, together with darkness, proffer the vital keys to preserving the contents of a wine bottle. The exact levels to which each of these variables should be tweaked remain open to interpretation. As a general guide, wine should be stored between 9–11 degrees Celsius, with air humidity sitting around 70%. A regulated temperature allows wine to mature without the risk of premature oxidation. There are numerous chemical reactions occurring within an aging bottle of wine that may be hastened or denatured by higher temperatures. Humidity is important to a cellar as it helps to maintain the integrity of the closure without drawing excess moisture out of the bottle.
One of the less conventional cellaring places happens to be the ocean floor. By case of pure chance, many of the wines recovered from the shipwrecks of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—a treacherous seafaring time—have been found in immaculate condition; entirely drinkable and remarkably fresh, considering their age. Correspondingly, Spanish avant-garde winemaker Raul Perez is experimentally aging his wine underwater with a view towards creating longer-lived wines. The pressurised environment, darkness and constant temperature make for an interesting place to mature wines. However, in the absence of any such desire to scuba dive before your next dinner, it is now commonplace for the contemporary home to be custom furnished with appropriate technology to preserve your private collection.
Beyond the science of wine preservation, there are deep emotions to be found in the bottles of a wine collection. A place where dust, dates long past and ancient vessels become aspirational, the accumulation of time is looked upon favourably in a cellar. The cellars of restaurant France-Soir in Melbourne’s South Yarra have been slowly constructed and improved since its establishment in 1986. Sitting aboveground on the first floor of the premises, carved wooden shelves hug each precious bottle in temperature-controlled surrounds. The cellar houses more than 8,500 bottles and the concordant wine list is a weighty proposition. The entrance to the cellar is flanked by a tool bench, a poetic bookmark of the work that owner, Jean-Paul Prunetti, has put into accumulating the collection. Inspired by his original business partner, Yvonne Vogel, Prunetti has a penchant for burgundy and cites a magnum of 1949 Comte George de Vogüé Musigny as being amongst the best wines he has purchased, protected, aged and enjoyed. Whilst a 750 mL bottle would have been superb in its own right, the prolonged aging process of this particular bottle was likely helped along by the fact that it was a larger format magnum of 1.5 L.
According to the head sommelier of the Grossi restaurant group, Mark Protheroe, the craft of designing a cellar “balances functionality of the space with elements of visual appeal.” A respected sommelier recently awarded twentieth place in the worldwide Sommelier du Monde competition, Protheroe was consulted in the creation of a new wine cellar for the flagship fine dining restaurant, Grossi Florentino, last Christmas. The cellar at Grossi Florentino can be viewed from the private dining room and flashes rare flights of burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, amongst others. “Some people like to have their cellar on display whilst others prefer them out of sight,” explains Protheroe. According to him, the main difference between a restaurant cellar and a private cellar is the presence of a set menu. “At the restaurant, we have a menu and a set number of dishes to which wine should be matched whereas at home, there is a much broader variety of cuisines that we enjoy: Thai, Indian, Chinese etc. Therefore, we require a broader diversity of wines at home.” Protheroe also stresses that in spite of our natural predisposition for old wines, vinous custodians should be wary to maintain a balanced cellar that incorporates a variety of drinking timeframes. “Don’t just think about what to drink in ten years time, think about next week as well. There are a great variety of short to medium term drinking options, such as Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and Chianti, that won’t set you back $100 plus per bottle.”
Passion and work meet at a crossroads in the cellar of iconic Australian winery Giaconda in Beechworth. Whilst predominantly used to mature young wines in barrel, the granite cellar at Giaconda also houses the collection—and inspiration—of winemaker, Rick Kinzbrunner. The cellar is lined with museum wines from past Giaconda vintages along with a broad selection from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone, amongst other European regions. The wines are reasonably mature, on average ranging between 10–15 years old. Kinzbrunner cites a 2004 Domaine Leflaive ‘Les Pucelles’ premier cru white burgundy as a bottle that he recently enjoyed, “It was just passing its peak but it was such high quality that you could still see what a sensational wine it was.” From a research perspective, Kinzbrunner utilises the wines to “keep current” with winemaking happenings around the world, as well as keeping his palate sharp. Of the more sentimental moments, Kinzbrunner recollects getting his hands on a bottle of Giacomo Conterno Barolo, recapturing memories of his trip to Northwest Italy some five years ago.
Opening a bottle of wine provides insight into a moment in time; retrieving that bottle from a personal cellar adds a layer of nostalgic meaning—the footprints of places travelled to, the gifts of close friends and a recollection of the time the bottle was first laid down to rest. Equally, a cellar should be recognised as an interactive time capsule. It is never stagnant. As we add and subtract bottles, our palate preferences change. There are some bottles that we no longer desire and others that have taken on a new meaning by virtue of changes within ourselves. Each unique cellar contains a story: the result of a personally curated collection.