It’s less complicated than you think: Wine cellars are for long-term storage and aging.
Let’s get something important out of the way first. If you buy a bottle of wine today and plan to drink it in the next month or so, you don’t really need to worry all that much about storage. In that case, your concern is more about how to protect it and prepare it for drinking.
Wine cellars are for long-term storage, and their objective is to help the wine age. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about how to store wine—either to drink in the near future, or to store and age it, if you don’t have wine cellar.
The ideal conditions
Wine cellars are perfect for storing wine because they can offer the optimal conditions for wine to age. If you plan to drink wine soon after purchase, you don’t have to worry about humidity, and you need to be less worried about temperature and light.
If you have a wine cellar, though, these conditions should be:
Let’s take a look at each of the ideal conditions so we can understand why they’re important for long-term storage, or aging—keeping in mind that this probably is the only reason why you would want to put wine in a wine cellar.
Kudos if you have a wine refrigerator. It’s keeping your wine between the temperature of 40 and 65 degrees—which is the range of wine serving temperatures. Long-term wine storage for the purpose of aging requires the wine to be maintained instead at about 55 degrees. Why?
Oxidation is the enemy of all wine. However, some oxidation is a part of the aging process. The 55-degree temperature is that perfect balance that prevents complete oxidation, which will kill wine. What does a dead wine taste like? It’ll be flat. The oxygen will have robbed it of the volatile chemicals that create a wine’s aroma. It’ll also change color. White wines will darken and take on an amber color, and red wines will take on a brownish hue.
Excessive heat increases the rate of wine oxidation. A wine stored at 73 degrees ages twice as fast as wine stored at 55 degrees. While you might think this would be a good way to add some mellowness to a sharp cabernet sauvignon, at about 70 degrees, the components of wine begin to react to heat to create unpleasant tastes and aromas. It’s possible to actually cook a wine at temperatures above 80 degrees.
A degree or two of temperature fluctuation might not seem like anything to worry about, but it turns out to be a big deal for long-term wine storage. Even a couple of degrees is enough to expand the wine’s volume and put pressure on the cork. When it cools the differential pulls air into the bottle. That’s an invitation for unwanted excess oxidation.
Wine is put in colored glass bottles to protect it from ultraviolet light. This offers some protection, but your wine will need more for long-term storage and aging.
White wines are most susceptible to damage from light. The term is called “lightstruck,” and it causes wine to take on taste most often described as like wet cardboard.
Red wines are less susceptible to being lightstruck because they contain polyphenols—also known as tannins—that protect it. It isn’t just excessive sunlight that’s the enemy of wine. Fluorescent light is just as bad.
This is all about protecting the cork in your bottle of wine, so there’s nothing to worry about if it has a twist-off metal cap. The objective is to keep a certain amount of moisture in the cork.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the solution is to lay the bottle on its side. The only thing this accomplishes is to keep the cork moist on the inside of the bottle—and that’s only half the battle.
A wine cellar allows you to maintain an even and constant humidity to prevent the top of the cork from drying out. It will shrink and crack of this happens. A constant humidity of about 70% helps the cork to maintain an effective seal.
A higher humidity may bring on the occurrence of mold on the cork and the label. The only thing this impacts is the appearance. Bottom line: it’s better to have a humidity level of 70% or higher.
If not in the cellar…
Where to store your wine? Places to avoid include your kitchen, a storage shed, and your garage. Wait, back up. The kitchen is a bad place to store wine?
For long-term storage and aging, yes. It can be one of the hottest places in your house, subject to huge temperature fluctuations. Kitchens also tend to be well-lit, and we like them to have lots of windows to let in the sunlight.
Your garage or a storage shed will expose wine bottles to extreme temperature fluctuations. The cork can also allow car exhaust fumes and vapors from things you keep in storage sheds to work their way into your wine.
Do you have a basement? That’s your substitution wine cellar. Choose a subterranean wall—not all basement walls are completely underground. Look for wine racks made of redwood. It’ll be maintenance free for you.
Remember this important point. A wine refrigerator is not what you could call a miniature wine cellar that fits in your kitchen. While it’s great for short-term storage, its purpose is to keep your wine at the proper serving temperature.