Episode 2: Keys to the cellar

By Halliday Wine Companion

"How do you know a wine will age well, and when should you drink it? And what do those drink-by dates on tasting notes actually mean?"

Presented by
Wine writer Campbell Mattinson shares these insights, and more, so you can master the art of cellaring. 

This series on cellaring is produced in partnership with Langton's Fine Wines.

Listen to episode two

Listen to episode three here.


Amelia Ball:               I'm Amelia Ball, editor of the Halliday Wine Companion magazine. If this is your first time listening, go back to our   previous episode. We took a trip out to speak to with James Halliday at his home in the Yarra Valley and we took a  privileged walk through his own personal cellar.

Campbell Mattinson is a journalist, wine writer and author and a member of the tasting team for the Halliday Wine Companion guide.

Campbell:                  It happened in the late 1990s. It was accidental. I never intended to be a wine writer.

Amelia Ball:               He's a regular contributor to the magazine and has an incredible writing and reviewing style that really draws you in. Before we get back to Campbell, thanks also to Langton's Fine Wines for partnering with us for this series as we  rummage through cellars and get the experts’ knowledge you need to get the most out of your cellar. And feel free to email us your questions about cellaring at mail@winecompanion.com.au.

                                    It is bucketing down out there. Hideous wet day. If you could go back in time and stock up on one particular wine, do you have any regrets in that way? Or is there one wine that springs to mind straight away?

Campbell:                  I think that one of the biggest regrets that all people who have cellared wine over a longish period, it almost always  comes back to price. So, it's those wines, you know, when Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier was $28 a bottle, which it was when  I was first buying it and it has gone up completely, rationally, incrementally, I've no problem with its price level, given its  quality now, even though it’s five times that price, well, whatever it is. I think that when it was $28 and when it was $35,  I should've been making hay.

                                    And I think all the old stories you hear about $20 bottles of Grange and stuff like that, whatever it was, $10 bottle of  Grange, that’s what so many of your regrets are about... And I think with Burgundy at the moment having been discovered by new markets, there's a lot of people going, ‘Gee, I thought it was expensive in the late ‘90s!’ I had no idea and the Italian wine even more so that I tend to drink. From pulling wine out of the cellar, it is often, eight times out of 10, it’s Italian, and the wines that I am drinking, which are not necessarily all that top end... There are enough to notice how much it's costing you and I do wish I'd got on that train earlier.

Amelia Ball:               Hindsight...

Campbell:                  For sure. I think, in general, in Australia, if all you're interested in is quality of the wine you're putting into your cellar; and that's not what is the only condition that you're looking at, but if it's all you're interested in quality, there's still heaps that is absolutely affordable; and is absolutely ripe to be cellared; so, that regret only goes so far.

Amelia Ball:               Did you ever baulk at opening certain bottles in your collection, or have you...

Campbell:                  Absolutely!

Amelia Ball:               ...been pretty...

Campbell:                  It's inhuman not to! Not anymore, but absolutely, I've kept wine. But you know, I've kept wine too long, as everybody has, and that's the other great mistake that we all make, is that... I mean, wine surprises us. There's wines that shouldn't be good and still are. And that's the problem – it puts ideas in your head.

Amelia Ball:               Yeah, that's right.

Campbell:                  But more wines are like that... I had a wine the other day; it was an Italian wine, and it was from 2010, so it's only eight years old, supposed to be a cellaring style; beautiful when it was young. It was lovely, but I would have liked it 18 months ago. And that's only an eight-year-old wine! So, I mean, there was an old saying, I don't know who or where it comes from, but seven out of 10 wines are at their best between seven and 10 years and it's particularly true of Australian wine. I'm not having a go at Australian wine by saying that. You know, that Italian wine the other day, it was eight years old, I reckon seven would have been good. I mean, I run a bit of a warmer cellar, I mean a cabinet, but I deliberately run it a bit warmer than I could.

Amelia Ball:               What temperature?

Campbell:                  Probably around 17...

Amelia Ball:               Okay.

Campbell:                  I just like it as a drinking temperature. A lot of people talk about cellar temperature as a good temperature to drink red wine. I often find cellar temperature, particularly in summer, where you really notice the difference, to be too cold. I've heard a lot of people that swear black and blue with fully integrated temperature; I find that too cold. I'm the same as those people who just hate the idea of too warm red wine, I'm right on board of that; which is a more common complaint. But I find 14 a little bit too cool.

Amelia Ball:               What about surprises? Anything in there that you forgot about, or shouldn't have aged well and really did?

Campbell:                  I think that happens all the time. Because of what I do for a living, one thing I do, which I don't really count as part of my collection really, but I do pop single bottles of things in that are almost purely for educational purposes.

Amelia Ball:               Oh, yeah.

Campbell:                  So, I wanna see what happens to X-wine or X-character. I think that that flavour turns into this and it's not so pleasant now, but it's going to be. So I like to put in things, just to teach myself something.

Amelia Ball:               That's good.

Campbell:                  Am I right?

Amelia Ball:               Yeah.

Campbell:                  I might be wrong. I might be telling the people the wrong thing... But, I guess of that stuff you get surprises both ways.

Amelia Ball:               Yeah.

Campbell:                  Except there are things like stalks in red wines. When it's really being pushed and it's out of balance, we're always talking about cellared wines at its best; like the wines to cellar are the wines that are well balanced. What if something's been pushed hard and it's out of balance, which is in some ways the whole root of cellaring in the first place. A lot of the whole idea of cellaring wines was how to balance Bordeaux. It needs decades to soften. What about something like stalks? What does it look like in five years, has it come back into whack? Those are the kind of questions... And it's like overly acidic riesling or an overly acidic chardonnay, there was a period, it's not so bad now, but when we went to modern chardonnay, and it was pushed too hard, in terms of it was a bit too lean... I used to look at them and go, I think that's going to be great in two or three years; but I might be wrong. And so that's been a really good process for a lot of people, including the makers.

Amelia Ball:               Yeah. What did you discover about those sorts of wines?

Campbell:                  Some of them do, some of them don't... But certainly with them, you'd be better off getting them into a place a place where its better… and I think that's the general view. You can go a bit too lean.

Amelia Ball:               That’s starting to come back again now.

Campbell:                   It is probably a bit harder to go too lean on riesling, but with chardonnay, definitely.

Amelia Ball:               What are your most sentimental bottles that you've still got in there? Do you have any?

Campbell:                  I have some... For funny reasons, I guess. I mean, I still have of what I call the modern era. I cellared wine from when I was 18 or 19.

Amelia Ball:               Okay.

Campbell:                  But not really in a dedicated way. But in terms of the modern era, I've still got the first wine, which I bought as a single bottle and I've still got it. It would be absolutely shocking now, it would be shot to pieces. I don't think I'll ever get rid of that bottle, because I know where I was. I would just never let it go. It's a dud brand, it doesn't matter. So, I do have wines in my cellar that I wouldn't sell, because I know they were key planks in my journey.

Amelia Ball:               How do you know that a wine is going to age well?

Campbell:                  Yes.

Amelia Ball:               What's your approach?

Campbell:                  It's so difficult to answer in a general way, because obviously is wine by wine; but A) the wine has to feel like it's good quality. It has to be... we always talk about things like balance, it just feels balanced. What does balance mean? Well, that's hard to describe too, but just nothing sticking out. It just seems neat. You know, it can still have plenty of personality, but everything just seems to be in the right place and the right measure.

                                    I think the other thing though is, has it got something more to give? If this is it, that's great. Just drink it. That's not a criticism in any way. In fact, my tastes over the years have angled towards fresher and fresher. And so, hence I don't need so many wines in the cellar, because I like young. I like young wine, there's nothing wrong with young wine and these days young wine tends to be so well made in general, that there's lot less need to cellar than there perhaps once was.

                                    So, if you like young, you're not really missing out. I think that a lot of people think if I don't drink it at the absolute optimum time, I haven't got the most out of it and so I've done a bit of my money. I don't think it's like that. Getting back, if you do put it in the cellar, I'm trying to look for something that I think still needs a little bit of work, even though it's in balance. Some wines are pitch perfect, but a little bit simple; they just haven't had enough time to develop those other nuances.

                                    You see that a lot with young cabernet, for instance. It's not particularly complex, but it's got beautiful concentration, it's beautifully balanced, it's long, it's got beautiful tannin; it's got all the things that are going to hold it in great stead and it will develop more complex characters, to get the most in terms of flavour spectrum with a cabernet you probably do need to cellar it in a way that a lot of other varieties you probably don't.

Amelia Ball:               I think you touched on it before, but ultimately you personally have to love the wine, don't you? To want to put it down.

Campbell:                  You have to love the wine. Putting it on the table of your family, it's in your home. It's in the moments you're longing for. You've got to love the wine. Unless it's for collection purposes.

Amelia Ball:               In which case, sometimes you can take short cuts and perhaps marry key regions with their key varieties, which are prone to ageing well. If you're not quite sure where your palate is, maybe would you recommend that's a good way to cheat in the meantime? In terms of just going with wines with great track record that are known to produce great, ageworthy, developed characters?

Campbell:                  There are key cellaring region-style matches that you should consider even if they're not necessarily to your taste. Obviously you wouldn't go too long. One of the things that other people find is that they get really passionate about wine, start loading up their cellars, it all matures at the same time.

Amelia Ball:               If you're looking to add rare and fine wines to your cellar, buying at auction gives you access to the hard to find.

Tamara Grischy:        We get the best wines we can, so making sure that our vendors are happy and offering to our customers, our buyers, the best wine that they can buy.

Amelia Ball:               Langton's list more than 900 000 bottles each year, with online auctions three times a week. Visit langtons.com.au

Amelia Ball:               A big one that can be confusing for people is the old drink-by, drink-to dates that appears on tasting notes. Is that when it's drinking at its best or is that when it's over? Like, any point after that, is it over?

Campbell:                  Funnily enough, it says a lot about the reviewer. Different reviewers have different styles in terms of where some will have set notoriously long drinking windows, some notoriously short, some are in between. So, that is because A) it's an inexact science and B) it is so much personal taste. I hate the idea of people keeping things too long and I would much rather, because I think it's far preferable too early than too late. But the end day is not the end of the story and often wines can sail. So, very difficult thing to predict.

Amelia Ball:               So from your perspective, when you're putting a drink-by date on a review, you're telling the reader to enjoy it anytime between now and that point?

Campbell:                   Yeah, more or less. There is an adolescent period, so an actual window rather than just an end date is kind of preferable.

Amelia Ball:               Do you have a good rule of thumb in terms of how often to open bottles of say, multiples, if you've got three, four bottles of the same wine, you're working with the same drinking window. How would you stagger that?

Campbell:                  I do love the educational concept of you know, buy a dozen, intending to drink over 20 years and having one every year or every 18 months or whatever and that gets you there. And as an educational purpose, that is terrific and I have no problem with that and I probably accidentally do it with time.

Amelia Ball:               The other big question that comes up all the time is how do you know when to drink a wine. I think we've touched on quite a lot of elements of that already, but people are always so worried that it's not at its best or you're going to leave it too late. Does it come down to tasting those multiples, or does it just come down to maybe throwing a bit more caution to the wind?

Campbell:                  As I say, I do think that drinking too soon is too better than too late. What's the absolute optimum time for each person? People at the table might all disagree.

Amelia Ball:               We've talked about personal preference a bit; I was wondering if maybe we can throw some varieties at you and you can suggest where you personally like them? We'll start with shiraz, bearing in mind regionality and makers and all of those factors are always going to play a role in these decisions.

Campbell:                  I was almost going to say that I drink more shiraz than any other variety, most of it young. I certainly have, over the years, cellared more than my fair share; put it that way. There's no problem with it ageing, of course.

Amelia Ball:               When you drink cabernet with age on it, where do you like it?

Campbell:                  Cabernet is probably the variety that I can handle the oldest. It is the best naturally structured of the common varieties and so that always is going to serve it well in the cellar. I'd still think that 10 years is a good place.

Amelia Ball:               You've mentioned that you've got pinot in your cellar? Do you like it with a little bit of age on it?

Campbell:                  It's probably less reliable to cellar. Particularly historically in Australia. It's better now, but there was a time when we almost used to say Australian pinot doesn't age. It does, but it is so good young. I think that's more of a five to seven proposition in general. Even four to seven, if you're lucky, and then it's really old ones that are magnificent; so it can.

Amelia Ball                So what would be your best piece of advice when it comes to cellaring?

Campbell:                  Probably a couple. Think of why you are cellaring and it may well be just to have an impressive collection. Because I tend to trade my way into my tastes, I do keep half an eye on what's the resell value of this? Am I ever likely to resell? Somehow, I never buy intending to resell.

Amelia Ball:               Purely to sell, yeah.

Campbell:                  If you think that it's a possibility, I wouldn't say half an eye, it's like a 5 per cent eye; but it is worth having a look at, but keeping it in your mind. How are you going to drink it? Do you drink alone? Do you drink with your wife or your husband? Do you drink in groups and what do they like? Are they the sort of groups that are impressed by labels or are they the sort of people who just want a nice wine? I often think that a balanced cellar caters for all those things.

My cellar is deficient in impressive bottles. I would say they're all really well chosen, but they're well chosen on performance grounds only. And so if someone says, right, we're doing X; I probably am a bit light on. Because every time I go to a dinner, I don't have any more of that. There are some occasions, that it's not just about performance. Prestige has a place in wine. My advice would be, what's it for? As I say, prestige is important, but you can't drink a price tag. So there are wines that just are good and so don't think it all has to be expensive and don't think it all has to be cheap either. Often, if you’re pulling them out, 10 or 15... Some wines are great for, you know, how I only spent 10 bucks on this, some say it's just part of their story.

Amelia Ball:               Yes.

Campbell:                  That's why they're there – almost. But in general, you've forgotten the price, so you think that prestige is worth it, or that wine is just really good; it doesn't matter what is cost.

Amelia Ball:               Cork can potentially be a bit contentious these days. Where do you stand on the issue?

Campbell:                  It's impossible to taste a lot of wine and not love the screw cap. A) because, there's always exceptions, but in general, the wine is what it is and you're confident that you're seeing the wine. You like it or you don't, it's not the closure. It is another factor in its performance, in general. The screwcap is not absolutely 100 per cent foolproof, so occasionally there are times that you get caught. Occasionally, because apart from anything else, most wine goes down a bottling line and not every wine is filled from the same filler. So it's possible that a wine is slightly different to others in the case, but not like cork. With cork you might have six wines out of 12 that taste different to the other six. I made that figure up, but, you know, it can be quite a wide variation. And given that you can't not love the screwcap. Apart from anything else, it just makes life easier...

Amelia Ball:               Convenience

Campbell:                  ... just being able to open it and reseal it. That said, I'm pro screwcap, but I'm not anti-cork. A lot of people who are pro screw cap are anti-cork.

Amelia Ball:               That's such a Campbell answer, I love it.

Campbell:                  I know, and part of that reason is, a lot of the most pro screwcap people have tens of thousands of dollars under cork in their cellar. So they have effectively bet big sums of money on cork's performance and so, how can you be absolutely anti-cork on the one hand and put all that time and money and investment on cork? And there's situations where people club funds together on a really special bottle that's rare and they're betting all that money on cork and we have to have some regard for cork. And not only that; when I say that all my most special moments with cellared wine, they were beautiful old wines, I think that even though we are a long way down the screwcap journey, we're still at the stage where all the most special experiences were thanks to cork as a seal; as much as we love screwcap.

                                    And I used to think I've kind of evolved and, more importantly, winemakers have probably learnt, but I used to think that some wines are best served by a cork, even if I am not going to say that to anybody... cause we must hold the wine on screwcap! Because screwcap is a different type of seal and cork is a more softer seal for want of a better phrase. I used to think there were certain styles of wine that probably would have been better on a cork. I'm not going to say that too loud. And I can remember doing a comparative tasting and the winemaker was like, ‘Right, this is how we prove that screwcaps are great.’ I happened to be sitting next to him. This was more than 10 years ago, and those were trials and then quietly I went, ‘I reckon that that one under cork is actually better.’ And he was like, ‘Yes, some of them are.’

                                    But I think that we've learnt about bottling under screwcap a lot since those days and we probably learned a bit about cork too. I have less of those moments, which may just be because I'm institutionalised on screwcaps, but I have less of those moments where I go, ‘I wish they'd put that under cork.’

Amelia Ball:               Yeah.

Campbell:                  Particularly tannic and particularly stalk wines, I used to think that cork might just develop that bit of...

Amelia Ball:               Oh, that's interesting.

Campbell:                  ...The tannins would soften just a bit quicker and those stalks would just integrate a bit quicker, which would be a good thing, for this particular wine and that winemaker when I had a discussion with him, as I say it was over 10 years ago, but he was saying some varieties are susceptible that you kind of do think sometimes; but it's also vintage. It's like cooler vintages... but I think we've worked out those issues, but they're there.

                                    It also has to be acknowledged that screwcaps aren't universally loved.

Amelia Ball:               If this podcast has inspired you to start or grow your own collection, the Halliday virtual cellar is the best way to manage your wines. Visit Winecompanion.com.au and quote PODCAST at the checkout to receive a free one-month digital membership. Terms and conditions apply.

                                    Next episode we’re chatting with the head of auctions from Langton's Fine Wines, Tamara Grischy. What are we going to be talking about, Tamara?

Tamara Grischy:       Buying wine at auction, investing in wine, cellaring tips, how to get started and what you really need to know when you're on your journey to buying fine wine.

Amelia Ball:               That's next episode on the Halliday Wine Companion podcast. And for more information, you can always winecompanion.com.au. And thanks to our partner in this cellaring series, Langton's Fine Wines.