The best way to explain my approach to stocking a wine cellar is to share a few real-life stories from my recent drinking history.
I visited a bunch of wineries in the Great Southern region of Western Australia a couple of months ago and enjoyed many rieslings from the excellent 2018 vintage, including Frankland Estate's scintillating, lime-y, precise Isolation Ridge.
I love Australian riesling. I think it's one of the best wines you can have in your cellar: it matures gracefully for two or three decades and it's usually very affordable when it first hits the bottle shop shelf.
As a result, I have quite a few older rieslings in my (not very big) cellar, including some Grosset Polish Hill and Watervale from my son's birth year (always buy wines from your children's birth year: even if they don't appreciate them when they turn 18 or 21, you will) and a few Frankland Estates.
When I got home from WA, I fossicked around in the rack and dug out a bottle of Isolation Ridge from 2008, to remind myself – and the other 10 people I'd invited for Sunday lunch – how good it tastes after 10 years. And it didn't disappoint: all the pure citrus freshness of youth had developed into the gorgeous, rich lime-cordial of middle age as the bottle had sat in my cellar.
When in doubt, reach for Australian whites
The first point to be made here is that Australian white wines – particularly rieslings from classic regions like Great Southern, Clare Valley, Eden Valley and Henty – are a great bet for the cellar. The second is that wine is for sharing: it's a great feeling to bring out a well-cellared bottle for family and friends.
Which brings me to the lesson of the second story, which is: cellaring wine shouldn't just be about you and your preferences. You're also providing a public service.
Stock wines for every occasion and every taste
An old friend came to stay just after Christmas. He and I go way back, to when I worked in the wine trade in the UK in the early 1990s. We shared copious bottles of old red Bordeaux back then – classic vintages of claret from classed-growth châteaux – and I developed a real taste for that style of wine. As a result, my cellar has a leaning towards cooler-climate cabernet blends from Coonawarra, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley. Some of my best wine memories involve opening old bottles of Yarra Yering, Mount Mary and Yeringberg.
The only problem was, when he came to stay this year, my friend's tastes had changed. All he wanted to drink was chardonnay. Cold, fresh, young chardonnay. And because chardonnay is seldom my own first choice of wine, I wasn't able to completely satisfy his thirst: we quickly worked through the few bottles I had (as I say, I don't have a huge cellar) and soon needed a visit to the bottle shop.
Now, I'm not complaining: all my carefully cellared cabernet will happily live to be drunk another day. But I felt I'd let my friend down: a good cellar should be one that has wines for every occasion and every taste. And one occasion that makes me particularly thankful for having a wine cellar is Christmas. It's that one day of the year when everyone expects the "wine guy" in the family to bring out the special bottles, so I make sure I have all my cellaring bases covered.
Prepare for the silly season
Last Christmas we kicked off with Champagne that had spent a couple of years maturing: I'm a big fan of short-term cellaring when it comes to top-quality sparkling wine and rosé – I've found even a short spell in a cool, dark place can soften the sharp edges and help these styles of wine taste more harmonious. Then, after a few bottles of obligatory mature riesling, we had some older sparkling red with turkey and cranberry sauce. I love this classic Australian wine style after a decade or more in the cellar. The rich, sweet purple-fruit flavour changes into the most beautiful array of savoury, earthy, meaty, dark-chocolate characters.
Do your research
But before you rush out and stock up on heaps of riesling, cool-climate cabernet and sparkling red, you need to be sure that you like the flavour of these wines – or any other wines – when they're older. Not everyone does. Many people prefer to drink wines when they're first released and full of fresh fruit. So, it's worth investing a little time and money into this process of discovery: look online for older vintages of wines or styles you're familiar with (wine-searcher.com is a great place to start), or seek out a good merchant who specialises in aged wines. Buy one or two bottles and try them. If you fall in love with the flavours you find, then great: if not, you've saved yourself a lot of money, time and effort.