Tip: Philip Rich says "it's much better to drink a wine too young than too old".
Tip: Philip Rich says "it's much better to drink a wine too young than too old". Photo: Eddie Jim

Amy Cooper

Loving wine is like loving people; there comes a time when fleeting encounters will no longer do. You want to take things to the next level.

You'll know the signs. First comes a nesting instinct. You stash bottles in secret places. You wonder if each one could be a keeper. Then you become an avid recorder of wines. Selfies with special bottles and scribbled notes on napkins crowd your life.

This is how wine collecting begins and, as you take your first baby steps towards a real cellar, the questions start too: where to buy and what; how to store and where; when to keep and when to quaff. This guide should help set you on your way - but first, a warning: your new hobby could very quickly escalate from passion to full-blown obsession. Prepare to enter the grip of the grape.

Crunch the numbers

Before you begin, set a budget, says Gerald Ryan, sommelier at rural Victoria's farm-based foodie temple, Brae, in Birregurra. ''Be conscious from the start of how much you want to spend because it can very quickly get away from you,'' he says.

Chris Morrison, group sommelier for Sydney's Guillaume Brahimi agrees. ''You have to go in with a clear number, because going into a good bottle shop is like an adult candyland or a Toys R Us. Without a strict budget, you'll always spend 25 per cent more than what you want.''

Specifics depend on your wallet but as a general guide, Nick Hildebrandt, co-owner and sommelier of Sydney's award-winning Bentley, Monopole and Yellow restaurants says: ''You're looking at a minimum of around $30 a bottle for wines that are going to age. There's not too much for under $25 that will last the length of time.''

Ryan agrees. ''If you are looking to put together something serious, you might even go for minimum $50 a bottle,'' he says.

So how many bottles? ''A 240 maximum is a good cellar,'' Morrison says. ''But remember, that isn't just a one-off cost. You have to replenish it regularly - maybe every month, three months or quarterly. The idea is once you have a plan, you continue to invest.''

Storage secrets

A cellar can be set up just about anywhere - even in a tiny apartment. ''There are a lot of storage solutions,'' Morrison says. ''You can find guys online that can help you turn a household closet into a good wine cellar; a thermal-lined storage space with an ambient temperature of 18 degrees all year round and built-in steel mesh wine racks.''

Classic Cellars, Vintec and Eurocave are all reputable wine storage solutions companies. If you're space-poor or perhaps just can't keep your hands off your ageing wines, off-site storage is another option. Companies such as the nationwide Wine Ark offer climate-controlled storage for a few dollars a bottle per year.

Or a cool, dark corner of your home can suffice, as long as you remember that fluctuating temperatures and light are wine's bitter enemies. ''Keep it away from the kitchen or the water heater,'' says Morrison. ''Find the darkest, coldest spot. The attrition rate of wine that's kept three or four degrees too warm is almost triple a wine that's kept at the right temperature of 18 degrees or slightly less.''

Age gracefully

Ageing wines is a matter of balance - especially if you want to enjoy your cellar in the present, too. ''Ask your retailer to suggest wines that age short to medium term and some medium to long term,'' says Philip Rich, wine commentator and co-owner of Melbourne's Prince Wine Store. ''That way you can enjoy a bottle at any time.''

Chris Morrison recommends keeping about 100 of your 240 bottles for ageing, while the rest are available for drinking shorter term. ''You want a working cellar, not a museum. The core should be wines you drink at the right time, not wines you put away forever.''

If you're really serious about ageing a wine, Morrison recommends buying a dozen bottles of it and opening one every year or so to monitor its progress - until you're left with one which should hopefully be amazing. ''By the time I think it's perfect, I'm down to that last bottle,'' he says. ''You've been on a journey with it. It's like having a relationship with someone very special.''

But, like any relationship, it takes work.

''If you're looking to age wine then the first thing you need to ask yourself is, 'Can I commit to this?''' Morrison says.

Ageing, he cautions, is not the answer to an inferior wine - it's how good wines get better. ''Good wine is in balance from day one. The idea that the bad can become beautiful is wrong. Even if a wine is high in alcohol and oak, the other elements will balance with that perfectly and continue to do so as it matures.''

Philip Rich adds: ''My guiding philosophy is that it's much better to drink a wine too young than too old. Most people believe wines will live longer than they actually do. I always err on the side of caution when recommending cellaring times and if a wine lasts longer than I suggested, it's a bonus.''

Keeping track

Cellar cataloguing used to mean dusty tomes. These days, technology has all the answers. A variety of apps include filters (grape, region, winemaker), tasting notes, storage, and ''bottle-life management'' systems to track the exact age of each bottle. Check out apps such as Vinoteka, Cadent wineCellar, and VinoCellar, which boasts a virtual on-screen cellar graphic. But old-school techniques such as bottle neck labels can still help identify your wine on the spot - especially if you've imbibed a few already.

Prepare to be obsessed

''Wine does take over your life - you start thinking about it all the time and then talking about it all the time,'' confesses Gerald Ryan.

''I don't think I've ever met anyone who started to collect wine and then six years later said, 'You know what, I kinda fell out of love with it'.''

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