Episode 4: Maintaining your cellar

By Halliday Wine Companion

What's the worst possible thing you can do to your wine collection?

Presented by

Get the fundamentals with consultant Luke Campbell, from temperature to light and how to ensure diversity. Also hear some of the bigger cellaring disasters Luke's seen over the years.

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

Listen to episode four

Listen to episode five here.


Amelia Ball:               I'm Amelia Ball, editor of the Halliday Wine Companion magazine.

Amelia Ball:               Luke Campbell trained and worked as a sommelier, previously working with Neil Perry at Rockpool, Taxi in Melbourne, and also Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Scotland. These days, he's a cellar consultant for Vinified.

Luke Campbell:         Where we can help you guide you in the art of collecting, guide you in the art of drinking, cataloguing your cellar, designing your cellar, and also help you source some of those rare styles.

Amelia Ball:               So, you might actually be working with people who have possible inherited a cellar, or have maybe lost their way with their cellar. Is that right?

Luke Campbell:         Both of the above, actually. A lot of our members have inherited their cellar from their fathers, or their mothers, for that matter. As did I, I inherited my own cellar from my father many years ago, and also people who have started collecting wine on a wine trip, and their cellar in their garage has just exploded, so both of those instances happen all the time with our members.

Amelia Ball:               Surely there have been times when you've walked in and you've just thought oh, my god, how are we going to clean this up?

Luke Campbell:         We get lots of calls, actually, sometimes in those emergency situations. I had a situation in Sydney recently. We got called out to go and have a look at a cellar. The cellar was underneath a terrace house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, and not only had they had a flood and we had to move all the wines out, but behind that wall was a massive rising damp issue. You could almost taste the water in the wine. The water was mouldy, silty, and they had been affected. The wines that were under cork, that had been laying in that rising damp and mouldy area for a long time, had inherited some of those characteristics of the wine. It was shocking, so it happens.

Amelia Ball:               That just means all those wines were gone?

Luke Campbell:         Pretty much. Absolutely, yeah, so-

Amelia Ball:               Did they have an inkling of the level of damage that had been done to the wines?

Luke Campbell:         After the inside wall had began to fall inwards, and the moisture had collapsed that kind of wall, yeah, they got a fair inkling of it.

Amelia Ball:               Oh, my gosh.

Luke Campbell:         It happens. I went and did a cellar inspection, and we saw this kitchen atrium in a north-facing glass kitchen, this beautiful Italian-design kitchen. We were helping our clients with this particular cellar. They wanted us to evaluate their cellar and appraise their cellar. When I walked in through the cool part of their house to their back kitchen, which was completely encased in glass, north-facing, and I was asking where the wine cellar was, and they said, ‘We're in it!’ When we looked above the oven, and the kitchen, and the pantry, around the walls were wine racks. Obviously, the kitchen on a warm summer's evening might be 40 to 50 to 55 degrees celsius, and even in this case, it was in spring time and it was probably close to 40 degrees on average, which is about 35 degrees above average where your cellar should need to be.

Amelia Ball:               Not ideal.

Luke Campbell:         Not ideal, no.

Amelia Ball:               We've asked Luke to chat through some of the basics for home cellaring. It's all handy information, no matter what stage you're at with cellaring. For more information, you can always visit winecompanion.com.au, and thanks to our partner in this cellaring series, Langton’s Fine Wines. For more details, visit langtons.com.au.

Amelia Ball:               Last year, we surveyed our members and database for the Halliday Wine Companion, and we found so many of these questions came up multiple times, so we threw a few of them to Luke.

Amelia Ball:               As you walk into people's cellar and assess the collection, what would you say is above and beyond the biggest issue you see time and time again?

Luke Campbell:         That would be a toss-up between temperature and light.

Amelia Ball:               Okay.

Luke Campbell:         Yeah, so temperature, on average, ideally in a perfect world, between 14 and 16 degrees is ideally the best. Talking here about red wines generally, 14 to 16 degrees, and that is often ... As long as it's constant, that is perfect in an ideal world, but wherever I go it's either temperature or light.

Luke Campbell:         Ideally, you want UV-free lighting, so LED lighting is okay, dimly lit, not fluorescent, all that kind of stuff because with UV-free lighting, there's no heat emanating, so it's not changing the temperature, which is a really big thing, and people don't account for that when they build a cellar or turn a room into a cellar.

Luke Campbell:         Vibration probably would be the third thing. People think, I'll put it under the bed, or I'll put it inside the walk-in wardrobe, or under the stairs. All these things vibrate, so you slide your wardrobe every morning, it vibrates. You run up the stairs to the toilet, it vibrates, and people don't take that into account either.

Amelia Ball:               What does the vibration actually do?

Luke Campbell:         Yeah, the vibration kind of messes with it chemically and makes the fruit come away from its natural balance, and acids, and esters, and tartarics, and everything that binds the wine to make it good, without boring you to death with the chemistry at all. It splits the wines up. It shakes the wine up, makes them unbalanced.

Amelia Ball:               What can we actually do if we don't have somewhere under the house, and we only have that spot under the stairs, or we think the cupboard's good? What can we do to eliminate those factors?

Luke Campbell:         The great life hack I always tell people is to when you purchase wine, to leave it in the box, or the wooden box it's served to you in. That's the best insulation you can get because it's what it's been put in, and it's often dark, and it's also a layer of protection for it.

Luke Campbell:         The other one is good is styrofoam. We've all got styrofoam fruit boxes laying around somewhere. Just align your wines up in that, and then you generally don't have a lid, so you cut the bottom out of a second one, and then put that on top and, yeah, it will go best to reducing that variation of temperature.

Amelia Ball:                Yeah, nice.

Luke Campbell:         It's a good thing to realise because people just naturally stuff them in a cupboard, or put them on top of the fridge, but if you leave them in the box they come in, perfect.

Amelia Ball:               Yes. Not in a north-facing kitchen.

Luke Campbell:         Not in a north-facing kitchen glass atrium, no.

Luke Campbell:         And at Vinified too, we don't work with just every cellar we see. Obviously, at that point, we just advise them that they've got more of a collection, rather than a cellar, and we move on.

Amelia Ball:               One of the biggest conundrums, perhaps, in cellaring is when to actually open the wine. Assuming, say, we've got six bottles put down of the one wine, current release, just bought it, how would you recommend staggering the sampling of these wines?

Luke Campbell:         I always recommend to our members and our clients that we buy in either fours or sixes. No one generally has the space anymore to cellar or collect dozens. For those of you who do, fantastic, because there's more wines, and some of us do. I certainly don't have the space nor the time left because there's so many wines and so little time to drink that.

Luke Campbell:         I always recommend buying in fours or sixes. Some might say, ‘Why four? Four, that's a wacky number’. Well, in fact, you get three lots of four in a mixed dozen, which is perfect, so you can drink one and get a great summation of the wine; where the wine's at, how long the wine's going to age, and then you could put the three in the cellar.

Luke Campbell:         What are the greatest intervals at picking when that wine is best to drink is another great question because it's so subjective. It would be to do with your own palate, it could be to do with your partner's palate, your husband's, your wife's-

Amelia Ball:               Your level of restraint, perhaps.

Luke Campbell:         Or your level of patience, absolutely, which is the biggest one in my cellar.

                                    With that in mind, I think you have to taste the wine first and foremost, and that will give you the best idea. I often taste the wine and apart from assessing its palate weight first and foremost, I often think to myself, and this is how I taste wine, when will I like to see this wine? It's either now, in three years, or in the future, and the future after that.

Luke Campbell:         If I'm buying something fresh, hot off the rack, I generally don't look at it for about three years, and I take a note on it initially, and another note in three years. In saying that, I know a lot of you won't wait three years.

Luke Campbell:         The biggest thing to take away from that is the next time you taste it, write that note down and compare the two notes because I guarantee you they'll be different, the flavours will be different, and you'll see the evolution.

Luke Campbell:         The great thing about a cellar, a wine cellar, is you're watching the evolution; the evolution of that sense of place. You're watching a wine grow. Sometimes we forget it's an agricultural product, it's a living, breathing thing, it's going to change, and that's the beautiful thing about cellaring wine. It's an evolution.

Amelia Ball:               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 greatest wines 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:               If I throw a few different wine styles at you, would you be able to give us your personal opinion on how long they should be cellared to give us a rough timeframe?

Luke Campbell:         By all means. Yep.

Amelia Ball:               Regionality has an influence, but should we start with varietals, perhaps?

Luke Campbell:         Let's go with varietals straight up, yeah.

Amelia Ball:               Let's start with a biggie – shiraz?

Luke Campbell:         Well, shiraz is the biggie because there's may different styles, but generally today's wine market is producing wines that are approachable now with cellaring, so you're looking at easy five to seven years, if not longer, for shiraz.

Amelia Ball:               Where do you like it? Where do you find that sweet spot?

Luke Campbell:         I actually like it in that five to seven year. Whether it's from Heathcote or the Hunter, I might take it a little bit earlier. If it's from the Barossa, I might take it a little bit later, then if you start talking Northern Rhone, I might take it seven to 10 years before the wines really come together.

Amelia Ball:               What do you really like in those secondary characters that are showing?

Luke Campbell:         I like to start seeing that kind of ... In shiraz, you get a good look at the kind of spice, and the real grit, and earthiness of a shiraz or a syrah, so you start seeing the sight, whether it be the gravel of the riverbed next door, or whether it be the eucalypt of the trees in the next paddock, or whether it just be the sheer gritty, gravelly tannins that really set shiraz off.

Amelia Ball:               Cabernet?

Luke Campbell:         Cabernet sauvignon is not too dissimilar, maybe a little bit longer. For me, it's the $60,000 question, again. Which do you drink first or last? The argument is always about the tannins. For me, I was introduced to cabernet second after shiraz, and so the tannins in cabernet are much more chewier and longer, so I like to see those kind of wines at seven to 10 years, and I find they're in their window right in the middle, about eight. They need a long time to come together, and that's why a lot of great producers; Wynns is one that springs to mind. Sue Hodder and the team down there do phenomenal stuff. The guys from Margaret River, you know, Voyager, Cullen, these guys release their wines, Vasse Felix, again, release their wines with some time on them. Lake's Folly in the Hunter, they normally have a year, 12/18 months time, before they release them because they need a little bit of time to come together, whether in barrel or bottle. Absolutely.

Amelia Ball:               Pinot noir?

Luke Campbell:         Pinot noir is a good one. The diversity in pinot noir from across the world, whether it's from New Zealand or the Yarra, is really surprising. I think to get a great picture of pinot, you've got to drink it young.

Luke Campbell:         We're really lucky here in Melbourne. We've got the dress circle around us, from Macedon, Geelong, the Yarra Valley, amongst others, Mornington especially. They're so different, I really like to look at them young first to get a good characteristic. Based on the fact that I've looked at the wine and it's got a great tannin, and acid, and fruit profile, then you're going to taste it over the course of five to seven as well, but you've got to look at them young to get a really good picture.

Amelia Ball:               Yes, yes. Riesling?

Luke Campbell:         Riesling is really unique. Riesling can tell a story. Whether it's from the great slates of Germany, the high country of the Rheingau, or whether it's from the Clare Valley, it really paints a tapestry, a picture, and you're also really susceptible when you're cellaring riesling, that it will go into a hole. It dips on your palate. It closes down, so again, you've got to taste that really young, but you want to be looking at those wines 10 years plus. They really come together after a while.

Amelia Ball:               Semillon?

Luke Campbell:         Semillon, exactly like riesling. It will go into a hole after about three years, so again, you want to be looking at those wines seven to 10. Great producers are making, whether it be Tyrrell's, or Andrew Thomas in the Hunter, or Grant Burge in the Barossa, they're making accessible, rounder styles that are more approachable to a palate young, but if you're looking to age these white styles, semillon will go into a hole just like riesling, so you want to look at those wines at about seven to 10 years as well. Rough guide.

Amelia Ball:               Chardonnay is perhaps a little tougher to generalise, particularly Australian chardonnay?

Luke Campbell:         And what's happening with the Australian chardonnay at the moment is it's back, baby. It's had a massive resurgence, and mainly led by some new producers doing different things with them, and things like that, but we've gone through that ‘anything but chardonnay’ day, and people have gone almost full circle back to the buttery style.

Luke Campbell:         Yeah, it's hard, very hard, to pigeonhole. The great Burgundies of the world, like Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies, you don't want to be looking at those for five years plus. In Australia, again, three to five years. Chardonnay doesn't go into a hole, but it evolves in an uphill slope very slowly.

Amelia Ball:               And you've had some really good advice in the past about diversity. If we're setting up a cellar, how can we ensure that we are stockpiling a good, broad-ranging collection of wines?

Luke Campbell:        There's two things at play. I think we have to drink diversely, but most of all we have to cellar diversely. Cellaring diversely is meaning that we don't just put all shiraz or all riesling in your cellar because eventually, as we've talked about, your palate changes, and when your palate changes, you want to look for some other flavours, you want to look for some other styles.

Luke Campbell:         If you were starting a cellar, pick two or three styles of wines you like, but then also put in a wildcard. I like to call it, put in something that you wouldn't normally pick off the shelf that has a great track record of cellaring. If you like shiraz, maybe pick something that's equivalent to it. Cabernet is a great example, and then pick something, ‘Oh, I really like shiraz, maybe I’ll take a syrah from the Rhone Valley in France, its homeland’ and then a wildcard, and the wildcard might me that semillon sauvignon blanc you mentioned earlier, Amelia, or it might be a white wine from another region.

Amelia Ball:               So, if you really don't know where your palate's going to go, it's really about track history?

Luke Campbell:         Track history, absolutely. Something that revolves around having either great winemakers, or it's the right wine style from the right region, and that track history, yeah, will be evident in whatever research you've done, or whatever magazines you happened to have read at the time.

Amelia Ball:               I like your point. I mean, if you only like shiraz, I love the idea that there's so many different types of shiraz, so you can go and delve into the Rhone or other regions of Australia that you may not necessarily go to. That's obviously going to give you a bit of diversity.

Luke Campbell:         Absolutely, and by that very note, if you're training your palate, and you're just getting into wine, just learning wine, and you're really trying to uncover what your palate loves, start with one varietal at a time. People get really excited. ‘We'll do pinot this week, and we'll do Italian nebbiolos next week’ and everyone goes crazy, but the best advice that was given to me, actually, as a very young somm, is just do one variety at a time.

Luke Campbell:         Shiraz is a great example. You can taste it from the Heathcote, Hunter Valley. It's home is the Northern Rhone in France. You can taste that as a blend, you can taste it as a single variety from the Barossa, or you can taste it fortified from Rutherglen. Just stick with the one variety over the course of a few months even, and when you go out for pizza, or you have a wine night at home, taste that variety. You get a real great spectrum of the characteristics, and the flavours, and the styles of shiraz or syrah, or whatever it may be, if it is nebbiolo, or Barolo, if that's your flavour, you can do that one too, but one variety at a time is the best way to train your palate.

Amelia Ball:               We've spoken a little bit about trying wines on release, so we have a concept of how it starts its life and what to expect from it. How do we actually remember those wines? Is it about relying on palate memory? I mean, obviously we're taking notes, we're keeping spreadsheets using set maps, the Halliday Virtual Cellar actually offers a great deal of those functions. How to remember those wines, what are your best insights on that?

Luke Campbell:         In terms of palate memory, for me, I'm very lucky, I have a rolodex of flavour attributes, whether it be for cabernet, or semillon, or nebbiolo, that when I taste the wine, that rolodex literally flicks in my memory to the page that some of the characteristics of its tomato bush, or underbrush, or mushroom ragu. I go, ‘Oh, mushroom ragu, all right, pinot. Oh, tomato leaf undergrowth, oh, cabernet’ and that comes up.

Luke Campbell:         Everybody is different, I think. If I relied on my wife, I'd be drinking chardonnay and Champagne all my life, so that's her palate memory. By the same token, and that's a great palate memory too, each to their own, but if you can build up this assessment, and you're looking at one variety at a time, and you're looking at styles, you begin to remember those styles. Not so much individual wines. That's why we take notes, and that's why wine judges and sommeliers take bucket loads of notes, but palate memory is a great one. You need to build up your palate memory, and you build it up by just tasting, and that initial taste is when we literally take a moment to literally inhale those esters, and take a picture of that wine.

Luke Campbell:         For me, it's a rolodex. Some people, you see them literally describing it as they write. Journalists do different things, everybody has a different ... I'm sure James Halliday as a different assessment of how he remembers a wine. For me, I always, yeah, just refer to that rolodex, and the way I've built that up is just tasting wine dutifully over time.

Amelia Ball:               So, you think it's something you can actually build on?

Luke Campbell:         Absolutely. Everyone can build it. It's like muscle memory in the gym. It's like playing that same tennis shot over time. Absolutely, people can work on it, very much so.

Luke Campbell:         What about you? How do you remember a wine, Amelia?

Amelia Ball:                I think it's a combination of all of the above.

Luke Campbell:         Yeah?

Amelia Ball:               Yeah, and sometimes a wine will stump me, and I'll just think, why is this so familiar? And then I'll finally nail it because it's that one particular character that I really enjoyed in a particular wine a little while back. It won't always come to me immediately.

Luke Campbell:         I think it does, it creeps up on you. I have a friend, actually. He's a restaurateur, and a really good one at that. He remembers the time and the place. ‘Oh, I had this in the summer of February 2016, and we ate scampi, and we did this, and we were waterskiing.’ He's got this amazing memory for the time and the place and who he shared it with.

Amelia Ball:               Yeah, right.

Luke Campbell:         Which is really nice as well, but he's coming at it from the other angle of what it reminds him of, and that's a beautiful thing too. It's completely from the opposite end.

Amelia Ball:               If you're seeking more cellaring inspiration, tasting notes, and behind the scenes exclusives with James Halliday, visit winecompanion.com.au. Podcast listeners can also receive a free one-month digital membership by simply quoting "podcast" at the checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

Amelia Ball:               Please review the podcast where you're listening, and let a friend know if you think they could use some cellaring advice from our experts, and for more information, you can always visit winecompanion.com.au, and thanks to our partner in this cellaring series, Langton’s Fine Wines.

Jasper:                       Hi, I'm Jesper Kjaersgaard, and we will be discussing how to make the most out of international wines and your cellar.

Amelia Ball:               That's next episode. Tell a friend about the podcast, and send your cellaring questions mail@winecompanion.com.au.