Once upon a time, in a galaxy far….sorry about that! Anyway a long time ago the butler rather than being at the top of the domestic pile was to be found in the nether regions of many a great house; down in the cellar to be precise. The butler began life as the key keeper for the cellar and in French he was called the bouteiller which could be translated as “bottler” for he was in charge of the dispensing of wines from the barrel; all wine was in barrels then, into bottles for ease of service at table. The cellar was where the barrels or butts were stored which has led to the term buttery, nothing to do with butter!
In modern times the sommelier has become more associated with wine and its service but originally he was the servant that prepared and loaded the pack animals, bêtes de somme in French, in a great household. In effect the responsibilities have been reversed, the butler now does all the household work although with occasional cellar duties and the sommelier has become the wine person!
Our modern butler may be called upon to maintain a cellar and serve appropriate wines which may be a daunting task for many but a few simple steps will render the task much simpler. Wines need certain conditions; darkness, no vibrations, some humidity and a constant temperature. Much is written about temperature but the important aspects are; 10-12 Celsius but this may be HIGHER as long as it’s constant and finally wine can handle temperature variation so long as the variation happens over a prolonged period e.g over the course of a year. These considerations are important as not every dwelling has a state-of-the-art cellar!
Correct storage of wine is important. Wine that is delivered in cartons should be removed and laid down immediately as the carton will taint the wine but wine may be left in wooden cases for long-term storage. A system of storage will be needed if one is not being used or is no longer apt, but make it an easy one. One may choose red one side and white on the other or by country or by vintage with a spot for larger bottles, sparkling wines, sweet wines, fortifieds, aperitifs, brown and white spirits and perhaps even beer. Please do remember to stand spirit bottles that have a cork as otherwise the alcohol will eat the cork! Wines will need to be documented and a good old-fashioned ledger will suffice but some principals will have high-tech systems.
When serving wine temperature is all important. Generally the younger the wine the cooler the temperature and this applies to red and white as young wines have more what are termed “primary” flavours, usually fruity. These young wines will often benefit from being carafed as they be “dumb”, a wine term indicating a lack of evident aromas which will usually be helped by being carafed. During aging wines develop complexity and low temperatures will kill subtle nuances of flavor. A good rule of thumb is to add 3 degrees Celsius to the temperature for young wines to that for older wines.
It is important to bring older red wines from the cellar to the dining-room the day before so as to allow the wine’s temperature to rise gently and the wine may then be decanted. Decanting is the operation that separates any sediment from the wine and is performed on mature red wines and some styles of port as most wines as now filtered and throw little sediment. If decanting proves to be a problem simply buy a decanting filter. White wines must never be chilled as the flavours will be killed and older whites will need to be brought from the cellar and placed in a wine fridge which is not too cold.
These tips will I hope be of help to you if you are asked to take care of the wine cellar. Matching food and wine is for another article but the simple principle is this; the wine must never, ever dominate the food…..ever!