Starting, and stocking, a wine cellar

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2014 - 2:35 PM
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My first wine cellar was a disaster, the converse of the old Dr. John song “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

I had the right era — reasonably priced cabernets and Châteauneuf-du-Papes from the late ’80s — but it was in the wrong locale: a rented house where the basement temperature fluctuated by 20-plus degrees between winter and summer. I still almost cry when I think of those 1989 Château de Beaucastels that got cooked.

A wine collection doesn’t require a cellar, but it does need to be in a dark, not-too-dry space that stays consistently cool (65 degrees at most). Setting it up under a basement stairwell can work just fine, for example. It also doesn’t require expensive racks, at least until a later, perhaps inevitable growth spurt.

And blessedly, the wine buying is easy these days. Even though first- (or second-) growth Bordeauxs and grand cru Burgundies are out of reach, stocking options abound.

I asked two Minneapolis merchants, Darrin Minehan of Sorella and Erica Rokke of Zipp’s, to provide some suggestions for the novice collector.

The criteria: no more than $40 a bottle for wines (red, white or bubbles) that could be just dandy next month but will age well for at least a few years.

The goal: to learn more about what regions and varieties might be worth buying more of as your collection grows.

“Start with what you love,” Rokke said, and look for tastings and classes where you might get discounts on the wines being poured. Buy more than one bottle so you can see how the wine evolves.

And look for sales, Minehan said. Some red Bordeaux in the spectacular-from-top-to-bottom 2010 vintage might be marked down temporarily from more than $30 to somewhere in the $20s. (The 2009s are pretty swell, too, he added.)

Other regions or grapes to seek out:

• It’s hard to find Champagnes that meet our budget limit, but some wonderful Montlouis Brut, Cremant de Loire, Cremant du Jura, and the better Cavas are a great fit, Rokke said.

• Both winemongers touted German rieslings. “I always have a few bottles of spatlese from J.J. Prum or St. Urbans-Hof from the better vintages like 2011 and 2012,” Minehan said. “But most every vintage from the last decade produced wines worthy of aging. The goal is going for 10 years from the vintage date, though I often run out of patience.”

• Rokke recommends chenin blancs from France’s Vouvray and Montlouis appellations.

• Some California chardonnays are good for half a decade, Minehan said, calling out Calera, Mount Eden, Ramey and Talley. “If there is one area where California really competes on the international stage for combining value and high quality, it is with the $25 to $45 chardonnays … if you avoid the heavy malolactic styles.”

• The only other domestic endorsements were for petite sirah (“they always hold up,” Minehan said) and, from Rokke, reds out of the Great Northwest: entry-level Willam­ette Valley pinot noirs and Columbia Valley cabs, merlots and syrahs.

• Nebbiolo was a favored grape for both parties, with Rokke suggesting Barbarescos, and Minehan liking Barolos in the $30 to $40 range, such as G.D. Vajra’s “Albe” bottling and the 2007, ’08 and ’09 vintages proving pretty reliable.

• It’s hard to find suitably un-spendy stuff from Châteauneuf-du-Pape these days, but Chante Cigale consistently plays above its pay scale, Minehan said. Or stick with the same grapes: grenache or carignan from Priorat and Montsant in Spain, or mourvedre from France’s Bandol, where mourvedre reigns.

• Similar structure and style can be found in the tannats from Madiran in France. “Super age-able,” Rokke said, “and delicious with a juicy steak.”

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  • It doesn’t take much to start a wine cellar: steady, cool temperatures and enough space for an inexpensive rack will do the trick.

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