Critical to the longevity of a wine are the conditions under which the wine has been stored. Wine storage methods run the gamut, from the very simple to the most complicated, scientific solutions. Many customers choose a method without first understanding the basic tenets of wine storage. A model for ideal wine storage is found in Europe’s top vineyards, where wine is stored in dark, damp, humid underground caves that naturally maintain a constant, cool temperature year round. It is important to keep these conditions in mind when considering your own wine storage solution.
Customers often ask me whether wines that they have kept in their homes for many years are still ‘drinkable’. In order to answer that question, I must ask several others:
What type of wine are we talking about? As a rule of thumb, reds and whites have different ageability characteristics. Reds wines tend to be more age worthy than whites (with the exception of dessert wines); however, this is by no means an absolute. Some whites have been known to age for decades. Some red wines and Sauternes have been known to age for over 100 years and still drink well. Most wines currently sold in retail shops are ready to drink or need only a few years of cellaring (knowing how long to cellar your wine, if at all, is a detailed topic that will be discussed in a future article). I recommend asking your retailer which wines are ready to drink. I often hear customers say that they are not interested in current vintage wines that are ready to drink (i.e., 2004 Cabernet) – however, these wines can be as good as any. The main reason that cellaring began was because the wines needed time, not because people wanted to wait 20 years before drinking them. Modern wine making techniques allow for wines to be smoother, softer, more balanced and livelier at a younger age.
Wine may be a serious business, but it can also be serious fun! When is comes to everyday $10 - $40 wines you have to have an open mind. I would worry more about the types of wines I like (fruity, earthy, light, full, oaky, buttery, etc.) than what the vintage is and even, in some cases, what grape it is.
Where has the wine been stored? If the answer is “In my wine cellar”, a whole new dialogue is opened concerning the nature of the cellar. There are several fundamental rules when it comes to wine storage. Every effort made toward reaching these ideals improves the conditions under which your wine is stored. These rules apply to both long and short-term storage; however they are much more important when considering the long-term cellaring of your wine.
Is your cellar a room? Is it a dedicated space that has active climate control (i.e. EuroCave, professionally installed wine room) or is it a room in your basement that ‘seems’ to be the right temperature (otherwise known as a passive wine cellar)? Or, is it the space just above your refrigerator? If it’s the later, you should think twice before ageing your wine in that space as just about every cellaring rule is broken here.
What is the average temperature? The ideal temperature for ageing your wines is 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below 55 degrees can inhibit the ageing process. Contrary to popular belief, wine will freeze (and Champagne will explode) if stored at very low temperatures. If your wine is ever frozen, I would recommend throwing it out. Temperatures above 60 degrees can speed up the ageing process – a wine that may have needed 5 years of ageing at 56 degrees may now only need 3 years. Furthermore, temperatures in excess of 80 degrees can begin to “cook” your wine, ruining the wine in a matter of hours. When wine leaves our shop on a hot summer day, I always wonder whether it is going to sit in my customer’s car for too long. A good rule of thumb is if it’s too hot to leave your dog in your parked car, it is definitely too hot to leave your wine. The temperature ranges and cutoffs that I mentioned are rough estimates. There are many conflicting theories on the proper temperature for wine storage, and different types of wine require different storage conditions.
What is the constancy/fluctuation in temperature? Arguably more important than the average temperature, constancy of temperature is paramount to assuring the long-term ageability of your wines. If I had a choice between two different storage locations, one that had a constant temperature of 63 degrees and the other that fluctuated between 54 and 60 degrees, I would choose the location with the constant temperature. With any cellar there are sacrifices – however temperature fluctuation is one area that has little margin for error. Where a higher than average constant temperature will merely speed up the ageing process of the wine, repeated swings in temperature will quickly ruin wine. The fruit will become noticeably absent and the wine will begin to taste oxidized, like sherry.
What is the humidity level? Wine should ideally be stored at a humidity level of 50% to 70%. I prefer the level to be at the higher end of the range. Humidity levels ensure that the corks stay moist. A moist cork will prevent the drawing of moisture from the wine bottle into the storage environment, and will prevent oxygen from entering the bottle. When humidity levels are too low, the wine will begin to evaporate out of the bottle through the cork. Levels in excess of 70% can promote mold growth on the outside of bottles, and can damage labels, making the wine bottle less valuable to some collectors. However, I have not found that excess humidity damages the wine itself, and thus favor a 70% humidity level. It can be challenging to create an environment with this high level of humidity. The convenient little wine refrigerators that have become so popular do not actively control humidity (in fact they actively remove humidity from the air) and can damage wine in a relatively short amount of time. I recommend these units for short term storage only. There are, however, units of all sizes that provide humidity control. These units are significantly more expensive than their non-humidifying counterparts (often three or four times the cost). On another note, screw cap bottle closures seem to shine here, as there is no evidence that a screw cap closure is compromised by a low humidity environment. I think it is safe to assume that all of the other storage factors affect screw caps, however.
Is the wine exposed to light or is it kept in darkness? Light can be a silent killer of wine. UV rays are known to have negative effects on wine – the flavor is said to go ‘flat’ and taste stale after prolonged light exposure. When considering long term storage options, it is very important to minimize the amount of natural and artificial light radiating on your wine. Most modern wine bottles have some form of UV protection (some better than others). While this is not a complete solution to eliminating light exposure during long term storage, it sufficiently protects your wine during short term storage. Either way, it is best to minimize light exposure whenever possible.
Is the wine being stored near a source of vibration, such as a refrigerator compressor or stereo speaker? It is believed, while not universally, that vibration can ruin wine. Erring on the side of caution, I recommend that you try to minimize vibration of your wine as it can cause short-term disturbances in the wine. When left still, sediment is allowed to settle at the bottom of the bottle – if the bottle is shaken, the sediment will briefly go back into solution. It is unclear, however, whether this can have a long-term effect on the wine.
None of the rules outlined above are without exception. Some of the temperature ranges provided are median ranges, and therefore do not apply to specific wines in your collection. It is highly recommended that you consult a professional before investing in your wine storage system. The better the environment you provide, the better chance you have of preserving your wines properly. More than any other factor, humidity is what separates novice from professional wine cellars. I welcome any comments or questions you may have. Please post your comments to the blog, so everyone can see them. I look forward to seeing you in the Shop!