Wine among the Jenolan stalactites

Last weekend I visited the most stunning natural cellar – certainly the most extraordinary in Australia and, for natural beauty, even more striking than the famous chalk drives of France’s Champagne region.

In Champagne wine matures in hundreds of kilometres of tunnels carved in the soft chalk underlying the whole region (and baring its bright, white face at Dover, on the English side of the channel).

The temperature sits steadily at around 10 degrees Celsius in dark, humid, physically stable tunnels – some, as at Pommery, run from the bottom level of chalk quarries carved during the Roman Empire. Most, of course, have been carved over the last few centuries.

These are ideal cellaring conditions for a delicate wine like Champagne. I’ve tasted some pretty old vintages in beautiful condition – some brought to Australia by visiting heads of Champagne houses (invariably smiling like they can’t believe their own good luck – we’re such a good market for them); others on visits to the region.

But over there you don’t have to be a wealthy Champagne house to make a decent cellar. I once visited an ordinary suburban home with its garage cut partly into a hill on one side. The owner, winemaker for the tiny producer Salon-le-Mesnil, took to the chalk wall with a mattock and shovel, shaping a spiral, downward sloping tunnel about ten metres long. It was perfect – and it’d be the envy of anyone who’s ever struggled through a metre or two of Canberra’s iron-hard soils.

Natural cellars in warm Australia can’t achieve 10-degree temperatures. But the fourteen degrees, say, of the beautiful underground drives at Seppelt in Great Western, Victoria, is nevertheless ideal for most wine styles. It’s turned out some pretty fine old sparkling and still whites and reds over the last century.

If we accept that constant cool temperatures are best for long-term wine cellaring, the question is how do we achieve this at home and what happens if our cellars are a little warmer.

Over the last three decades I’ve tasted hundreds of wines from semi-undergound Canberra cellars – ranging from a bit of hole dug under the house to extensive areas snugged in under one or two stories and set back in a hillside. I estimate that, on average, these range from a minimum of around 10 degrees to a maximum of 20 degrees over the year, with only small day-to-day temperature movement.

From these cellars, including my own, I’ve tasted plenty of pretty good old reds and whites (lots of disasters, too, but usually attributable to failed corks or poor wine selection in the first place). But I’ve also tasted many of the same wines from temperature controlled corporate cellars (around 14 degrees constant). Almost invariably, these wines are noticeably better – fresher and more vibrant, but still with attractive aged flavours.

The message is clear: the better and more expensive the wines you cellar, the more important the cellaring conditions become. These days the very high cost of moving dirt, rules out completely underground cellars for most of us. Hence the growing popularity of climate controlled wine fridges and even complete cool rooms capable of holding thousands of bottles.

The adoption of screw caps makes cellaring, in general, more reliable. And I assume that humidity becomes less important now that we don’t need to keep corks moist and elastic. However, it’s still essential to maintain a steady temperature – at the very least eliminating big daily swings.

If it’s hard to maintain good cellaring conditions at home, it’s out of the question for most restaurants – attributable to lack of demand, lack of proper storage (and the expensive of providing it) or the cost of holding stock for long periods of time. Some, however, source small quantities of mature wine from auction or direct from private collectors or wine producers.

That’s why it was a surprise last weekend to find an embryonic cellar associated with Caves House, the fabulous old accommodation and dining establishment at the Jenolan Caves.

The house is under the control of the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust, and therefore an arm of the New South Wales Government – hardly a body associated with fine wining and dining.

I suspect it’s hard slog for the current manager, James Brady, but he’s having a go. One initiative is his little cellar in the caves. It’s hundreds of metres from Caves House. But if you’re a house guest and prepared to select a bottle from the cellar (a very limited selection at present), James will escort you to the cellar.

The bonus is a personal tour of several hundred metres of the spectacular Imperial Cave to find the cellar (a single rack at present) buried deep below the surface at a brisk year-round 15 degrees.

It’s a terrific idea. And if James gets support from his masters, he’d have no trouble expanding the range of wines available and would surely find wine producers happy to sell already mature bottles for the racks.

What could be lovelier than dining on fresh local produce in one of Australia’s grand old buildings sipping a fine old Aussie red?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010