Now if you’re anything like me, when I first started buying (and drinking!) wine I cared very little for the finer points of wine storage. In reality, most of the wine I bought was demolished hours after purchase, while the occasional more interesting (meaning more expensive) bottle would spend a week or two on a shelf in my stuffy uni room (that’s college for my American wine friends). Making the most of my student income meant value and offers were the name of the game. Quality came a bit further down the list. Pretty near the bottom, to be honest.
It took a significant wine disaster to shock me out of my complacency; a couple of years ago I read this horrific wine story. The unfortunate chap involved, Robert Dwyer who’s a wine blogger and enthusiast based in Boston, managed to cook a beautiful $100 magnum of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Poor old Robert left the bottle in his car, forgetting about the heat wave hitting Boston at the time. At temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius and over, the cork seal is broken and the wine starts to oxidise. In other words, 1.5 litres of gorgeous, velvety wine destroyed in a matter of hours. Tragic indeed.
The upside of the story is that it terrified me into changing my wine storage habits. I started by looking at how humans have traditionally stored their wine. Have you ever been to a winery with a really old, damp cellar where there’s little white mushrooms growing on the bottles and mould literally everywhere? While it might look like a health and safety nightmare, traditional cellars like this actually demonstrate the main principles you need to correctly store wine at home.
Old wine cellar in the Czech Republic. Image source: Petr Novák via Wikipedia.
Even though the vast majority of wine sold today is designed to be drunk young, usually no more than 2-3 years after the purchase date, these wines still need to be stored in specific conditions to avoid damaging the wine. As in the cautionary tale above, leaving wine in a very hot place like the boot of your car on a summer’s day will spoil them within a couple of hours (read more on heat damage here). For those wines which are worthy of ageing, like Sauternes or fine Bordeaux, fine-tuning your storage arrangements is critical to help ensure a happy and healthy maturation process and delicious aged wines!
- Chill out, but not too much!
You’ve probably noticed that winery cellars tend to be pretty cold. If you’re anything like me, you probably curse yourself for forgetting to bring a jacket every time you visit a vineyard!
The recommended temperature range for storing wine is 52 to 58° Fahrenheit (11 to 14° Celsius) and temperature fluctuations of more than a couple of degrees should be avoided. Exceeding this range can cause the chemical reactions which normally happen as a wine ages to occur more rapidly. This will result in a loss of quality compared to wines which have been aged slowly at an appropriate temperature. On the other hand, don’t let temperatures get too low either. Below around 50° F (10° C) these chemical reactions barely happen at all. This means that your kitchen fridge is a poor place to store your wines, unless you plan to drink them immediately!
- Keep real still
Another issue with ordinary fridges is the vibration from the motor which can also cause those chemical reactions which happen during ageing to accelerate, destroying the flavours and aromas in the wine. Vibrations also disturb sediment in age-worthy wines, preventing it from settling in the bottom of the bottle where it can easily be removed by decanting when you finally do drink the wine. With this in mind, try to avoid storing your wine where there are vibrations from passing trains, busy roads or metro systems. Depending on your dedication levels, this could necessitate an expensive house move!
- Embrace the rising damp
In most areas of life we naturally shy away from damp, moist environments, but in the winery cellar those clammy walls are essential. Humidity should be kept between 70 to 90% to ensure that the corks of your precious wine collection do not dry out. If the humidity is too low over time the cork may shrink and crack, allowing more oxygen to come into contact with the wine in the bottle. When this excessive oxidation happens wine loses its freshness and may turn into vinegar. Lack of humidity can also be a problem in kitchen fridges and in colder climates. Low temperatures often mean humidity levels are also low. It may be worth investing in a humidity monitor to keep an eye on the levels in your wine storage area.
- Let sleeping wines lie
If you’re storing wines for more than a few weeks it’s also a good idea to keep them lying down. This helps to make sure the wine is in contact with the cork, and this may stop the cork from drying out and cracking. Installing a wine rack is a great option, or you can simply make do with a shelf in a cool area of your house. Of course, this is only an issue with corks; if you’ve got screw-top wines they’re usually made to be drunk young and there’s no harm in storing them upright!
- Turn out the lights
Thinking back to those old winery cellars, light levels tend to be pretty low. Strong direct sunlight is one of wine’s worst enemies, along with heat and dryness. This is particularly a problem for sparkling or white wines, and exposure to powerful ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause the wine to develop an unpleasant wet-cardboard aroma. This is why white wines often come in dark green, blue or brown bottles. Coloured glass protects wines from this problem to some extent, but to be on the safe side always store wine in a dark place!
German Riesling, like other quality white wine, is typically packaged in dark green bottles to avoid sunlight damage.
This might sound like a whole lot of rules, but regardless of your budget and your wine-drinking habits it is easy to store wine correctly. Wine cabinets allow you to control the temperature to avoid excessive heat or cold damaging your wine, and can store hundreds of bottles. If you’re lucky enough to have your own home cellar, you can install humidifiers and wine cooling units to maintain perfect storage conditions.
And what about the fungi? Well, some makers of fine Burgundy, Sauternes and Tokaj wines claim that they enhance and add complexity to their wines. But in the interests of hygiene, you probably don’t want fungi growing in your house. Just trust me on that one, unless you want to hear another wine horror story..
Got any more great wine storage tips, or any wine storage horror stories?! Let us know in the comments! And if you’ve enjoyed the read, why not join us here at The Wine Culturist by simply clicking the follow button in the sidebar… We always love making new winelover friends!