A Stellar Cellar On Board

Posted: 15th February 2013 | Written by: Rod Smith MW

Rod Smith with wine

Wine is becoming an increasingly important part of many superyacht trips, whether they are for charter or owner. An understanding of wine is often de-rigueur for many crew nowadays as a result of wine-knowledgeable guests, and the most detailed part of many preference sheets is now the precise wines the guests want to drink. Unfortunately, in terms of storage, wine and yachts go together like a horse and marriage. 

If you attempted to design somewhere inappropriate for the long-term storage of wine, you could scarcely come up with anything better (or worse!) than a floating vessel. The rolling movement of the boat, albeit gentle with the yacht’s size and stabilizers, affects the wine on a molecular level. What happens is a breakdown of some of the constituent chemical components. Some of the molecules break apart, some of the longer ones (tannin, colour) stick together, and then fall out as sediment. 

Stored in a cool, dark, land-based cellar which is free from vibration, the process can take decades. Although far from all, many wines age gracefully and become superior to drink as a result. Stored on a yacht – even in the most elaborate wine fridge and, in at least one case, on gimballed storage – the changes are accelerated. The wines grow old before their time. The most extreme risk is that they will eventually resemble wines that have been slightly cooked, a process called ‘madirisation’. This is named after the island of Madeira, whose wines are deliberately cooked, and indeed were originally transported on ships across the Atlantic to achieve exactly this effect.

Some guests, of course, may not notice. But yachting is about providing an experience, not a risk, so the best planned yachts will take precautions. The best plan for the wine on board is to store wines as closely as possible to the optimum, for as briefly as practicable. The ideal storage will be dark and at constant temperature, between 14 degrees and 16 degrees Celsius. Cases of excess wine hidden under beds, in bilges or warm steamy corners of the galley will go wrong much more quickly. Rotation is important – replace the first to arrive, not the most accessible. This is as true of fine Burgundy from a wine fridge, as it is a bottle of Champagne from the food fridge (long term storage at 5-to-6 degrees Celsius will also cause wines to deteriorate).

Stock up frequently from a land-based cellar, whether the owner’s cellar or that of your wine provisioner, and try to avoid having wines on board from one year to the next. Few wines would benefit from this, even if the storage were ideal. We are often asked to assess the state of the on board cellar of a superyacht only to discover a quantity of ancient Rosés and venerable old Pinot Grigios which are barely even fit for the galley.

A well-balanced wine list on board need not have hundreds of wines, but must endeavour to fulfil all the likely eventualities:

-Champagne and perhaps Prosecco for aperitifs;

-Fresh but simple white for drinking on its own (where Pinot Grigio works well);

-At least one dry Rosé;

-Crisp white for salads and fish (eg Sancerre);

-Full white for richer dishes (eg Burgundy);

-Light red for drinking on its own (eg Beaujolais);

-Fresh red for light or cold dishes (eg Pinot Noir);

-Full red for richer dishes, cheeses or with a cigar (eg Bordeaux or rich Italian);

-Dessert wine or Port if appropriate.

Of course, many owners and guests will expect a choice (of style, quality or price) at some or every turn of the above. This is especially true for the reds, but almost all tastes and menus could be accommodated with a list of around twenty wines. If your wine supplier is not prepared to assist you in coming up with such a list, then change suppliers!

Sometimes you can go a little ‘off-piste’ to impress wine knowledgeable guests and potentially save money into the bargain. There are some Italian Chardonnays that resemble Burgundy, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can rival the best of the Loire (and they make Champagne-beating fizz too), and America, North and South, produces red wines at all quality levels from the everyday to the once-in-a-lifetime.

Whether your guests drink huge quantities, or the most extraordinary quality, or even both, getting the wine side of their trip right for them is an important and fascinating part of the job of staging a charter. Your wine supplier should be able and happy to make this challenge as easy and enjoyable as it can be.

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Rod Smith MW, from Vins Sans Frontières, is one of only a handful of Masters of Wine working in France and the only one to work with yachts. The MW qualification is the highest possible achievement in the world of wine and something only 301 people hold.

For more information, visit Vins Sans Frontières (or the VSF Group) at www.vsfgroup.com.

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