Building a wine cellar – don’t be afraid!

By Alfred Wirth - Toronto Branch

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #72, Winter 2004)

There are three aspects to a wine cellar: Why do it, how to build it and filling it. It isn’t as intimidating as you may think.

Most wines, and nearly all red wines, benefit from at least one year’s aging. Many superior wines, including most ranked Bordeaux, many Burgundies and all vintage ports, are sold long before they are ready to drink. Vintage port is generally sold three years after the vintage, yet reaches its peak at the age of 15 to 20 years! A cellar is necessary to allow these to mature and offers the ability to choose the appropriate matches for specific foods to be served at a later dinner.

A good cellar also facilitates a Branch’s mission to educate by holding special tastings. Verticals of the same wine (or at least the same style) from various vintages demonstrate the changes developing over time. Horizontals illustrate how various Châteaux of the same vintage differ from each other, or how different regions or varietals compare at the same age.

A cellar also allows getting your wine at a lower cost by taking advantage of sales, auctions and lower priced futures (en primeur) before the wines are shipped.

For long-term storage and proper development of wine, the cellar must be dark, free from vibration, provide a stable temperature between 50 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit and be big enough to hold about five years of planned wine consumption.

Location is the first challenge. Perhaps a member has a suitable space in a garage, basement or some commercial premises. It must be secure and readily accessible for deliveries and pick-ups.

A permanent cellar can be built, or moveable pre-fabs are available that can be easily assembled with cooling units that require only a plug-in. Ready-to-assemble cellars are advertised in most wine magazines. I recommend

For permanent construction, a six or seven-by-10 to 12-foot enclosure is a good start. Depending on climate and security, it can be made of cement blocks or with two by fours on 16-inch centers filled with insulation and sandwiched between wall board on each side. The world’s most luxurious cellar builder is at For more practical ideas visit

Your cellar should provide space to hold complete cases of wine. Storing wine in original boxes saves space and makes transport convenient. Store the bottles on their sides or upside down to keep the corks moist. Cool cellars are very dry because of air-conditioning units.

Some racking for individual bottles is necessary for smaller purchases and leftovers. Remnants are useful, two bottles of six or seven interesting wines form a perfect tasting for 30 members. And, left-over singles make directors’ meetings much more pleasant!

Stocking the cellar may seem tough, but financing purchases can be done by an annual wine levy, a slightly higher charge for non-member guests or a margin built into event fees.

Choosing the wines is an enjoyable challenge. A good start is to think of which wines you would have liked to serve at previous events. What did you want to buy that you couldn’t store? What will improve most, or is even undrinkable, when first available? What sort of wine goes best with the foods you like to serve at events?

A small committee under the leadership of a professional or serious collector is a good beginning. You will surely want some highly-regarded classics, but there are also many very good, less well-known wines that aren’t expensive yet can give great pleasure when suited to their food complement.

As with all learning, there will be the odd mistake. But your Branch will feel great pride and satisfaction as your cellar grows, appreciates and you enjoy its benefits in years to come.