Words/images: Clive Pursehouse
Fine wine is meant to be aged, a few years at least. Wine is a living thing, and physiological elements such as tannin and acidity protect a well-made wine from oxidation and allow it to not only change but also improve over time. And while wine can’t age gracefully forever, a few years typically does wonders—but patience is required. The average bottle of wine purchased in America is opened about 90 minutes after it’s purchased; and about 80 percent of those bottles are consumed within 24 hours. You typically pick up a bottle of wine to go with your evening meal, or take it as a gift to a dinner host. But that wine culture is changing. In 2014, Americans bought more wine than the French for the first time, though it should be noted that the States has about five times the population of France, so, on a per-capita basis, we have a ways to go.
So what’s the best way to start a wine cellar? Whether you’re a regular or occasional wine drinker the most effective way to get your cellar established is to buy wine in quantity. For starters, let’s go with at least a case. That way, if temptation strikes, you’re not likely to polish off all 12 bottles! Once you’ve started to build a critical mass, you can ease up and purchase bottles one at a time. But where should you begin?
In terms of selection, supermarket wine departments and wine superstores have a massive amount of wine to choose from. But is any one item all that well thought out? Find a small local wine shop, whose inventory is usually limited by space and budget, and every selection is typically personally chosen. Smaller shops work to distinguish themselves by offering personal attention and hard-to-find wines. Some winemakers, particularly from Europe, don’t want their wines in big-box stores; they believe an informed merchant is an age-old element of how to do business.
I approached Anson and Jenny Klock, who own picnic: a food + wine boutique in the north Seattle neighborhood of Phinney Ridge, about curating a “starter cellar” from a single case of wine. A pair of professionally trained chefs, the Klocks created picnic to bring their house-made sausages and soups, and house-cured pancetta, to your home. And they offer an ample but very selective inventory of wines. They will suggest new wines to try and do special orders of bottles they might not have on hand. For Jenny, her perfect gateway wine to help someone understand fine wines is Chablis, “as long as they don’t have any preconceptions about Chablis—and California jug wine people are typically taken aback by Chablis’ minerality, character and depth and very approachable price point.”
HERE ARE THE KLOCKS’ FIRST CASE SELECTIONS FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO BUILD A STELLAR CELLAR:
A bottle of non-vintage “grower champagne” is a must. We think Pierre Peters exceeds his peers in this category. It’s everything we look for in champagne: fresh, flinty and the perfect touch of creamy notes that speak of true elegance. $59
Chablis would be our pick for a still white that ages beautifully. Olivier Morin is an underrated natural producer who doesn’t break the bank. Without having to splurge for grand or premier cru you can find wines within this mid-range classification that deliver the quintessential characteristics we expect from the terroir. Giving Chablis two to three years allows for some depth and layers to develop. $23
Syrah from the Northern Rhône can be downright sublime, especially from the vineyards in Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. We are quite partial to Alain Graillot. Vintage to vintage, these wines are consistent, and strike the perfect balance between power and finesse. Syrah from the cooler Northern Rhône has great potential to age beautifully—and as long as you can resist them. $32
You might be shocked at the ageability of chenin blanc, but many of these white wines from the Savennières appellation in the Loire Valley can go the distance. The Château d’Epiré is an out-of-sight chenin blanc that is lovely young but can be much more given time. It’s thirst slaking, flinty and loaded with minerality but offers great depth, body and complexity that are sure to evolve over a few years. $19
One of our favorite German Riesling producers is Tonschiefer, which translates to “slate.” This wine speaks the naked truth to any mineral-loving junkie. It might seem austere to some if drunk young—now for instance—but the best German Rieslings (this producer is one of them) are meant to be aged. The nuances that come with age from a German Riesling will stun even a developing palate. $26
Nebbiolo from Piedmont, and for us it’s Luciano Sandrone all the way. It’s medium bodied, ripe and elegant, but classically dry, and with a little age the tannins turn to silk. Sandrone is a highly sought-after producer in Piedmont, with a great reputation for humility and kindness for such a gifted winemaker. $42
You don’t think of rosé when you think of cellaring wine because the fresh-pressed pink wine is usually meant to be drunk within a year of release. This metodo classico sparkling rosé from Trento—the Cuvée Cima Coppi—is a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir and it undergoes the same production method as champagne. From California’s Corsa Wine, the wine is resplendent in a pink and black label that looks like it jumped from a Rapha catalog. The palate offers a mouthwatering balance of cut strawberries and cream. If you don’t cellar it long term, look to have it on hand until May to celebrate the maglia rosa. $23
From Tuscany, your cellar could use a youthful Super-Tuscan blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and cabernet franc like the Valdisanti from Tolaini. A fair bit of new oak is used and imparts a definitive richness to the wine it its youth. With time, intense young wine can become intellectual. The balance between rich dark fruit and tannin points to a wine that will evolve in your cellar over a number of years. $29
Tempranillo from Rioja, and it’s hard to beat Ontañon’s older vintages for value. With their distinct herbaceous qualities and intense dark fruit these wines are surprisingly delicate, but there’s a certain lasting quality on the finish. Depending on the vintage you are able to find, ranging from 2004 to 2008, a few more years will transform these wines in to cellar gems. $18
Washington state has come to be known for its syrah- or cabernet sauvignon-based wines, but we recommend a Loire-style cabernet franc and, for us, it’s the Columbia Gorge winery Memaloose all the way. Old world in style with its restraint (typically around 13-percent alcohol), yet there’s bright acid with more earthy qualities that make this a wine worth laying down. $25
Oregon is where the values are for Burgundy lovers. Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott (formerly of Evening Land) is killing it in this category with both chardonnay and pinot noir. The wine is unfined, unfiltered, pure, complex and proper pinot. Elegant now, stunning later. A great combination of excellent vineyards and a distinguished winemaker. The La Combe Verte vineyard bottling from Walter Scott is a great value at $23.
California is home to Zinfandel and for us it’s Porter Creek’s Zinfandel 2012. Literally one of the best we’ve ever had (ever). It tastes like nothing like what we’ve come to know as typical California zin—which has sadly become synonymous with boozy port. Beyond accessible at present, but so lively, tangy, spicy and herbaceous (read “well balanced”) that only time will tell. $34 p