If you love wine, starting a collection of your favorite bottles to have on hand at home is a no-brainer. After all, it’s more economical to buy a bottle at your local retailer than it is to order by the glass in a restaurant, and having a cellar of your own will allow you to take your tasting — not to mention your hosting — to the next level.
Proper wine storage is critical once you have more than a couple bottles in your collection. It’s one thing to have a bottle in the fridge for a few days before opening it, but a case or more means that you won’t be drinking it right away. To make sure your wine tastes as it should when you finally pop the cork, you’ll need to put some thought into your long-term storage system.
There are several factors that influence the flavor and aroma of wine over time. Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your wine cellar, whether you prefer Champagne or Bordeaux.
Components of a Perfect Wine Cellar
If you close your eyes and try to imagine a classic wine cellar, what do you see? Traditionally, storing wine meant keeping it in a literal cellar — a spot underground or in a cave-like grotto. That wasn’t just for show. Temperatures underground are relatively constant, since the earth is a great insulator. And it just so happens that, in most places, the average temperature underground is somewhere between 52 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit — the perfect temperature for storing wine.
Furthermore, cellars and caves tend to be slightly damp, and that humidity level tends to stay constant all year round, too. Another thing about cellars? They’re dark. Only modern homes have high windows breaking through the foundation to let in some light, but traditional cellars would have thoroughly blocked daylight from getting to the wine bottles.
These days, you don’t have to find a cave in France or dig a pit in your backyard to store wine well — but it does help to keep these traditional wine cellar features in mind as you plan your own long-term storage conditions.
The ideal temperature for wine storage is 55 degrees Fahrenheit — but you can give or take a few degrees without any harm coming to that bottle of rosé. This is significantly cooler than room temperature, so you should consider moving all those red wine bottles into a cooler place if you won’t drink them within a day or two. Note that storage temperature isn’t the same as serving temperature, which is often significantly warmer for reds and fortified wines.
This relatively cool temperature slows the aging process for all kinds of wine. Wine is like any other organic compound, and it will eventually decay. Cool temperatures slow the growth of bacteria and keep your wine in good condition as long as possible. The vast majority of wines on the market today are designed to be drunk shortly after selling, so slowing the aging process means that you’ll get the flavors and aromas you expect.
Maintaining a constant temperature is key. Even if your storage area is a few degrees warmer or cooler than the recommended 55 degrees, you’ll get good results if you avoid temperature swings. This is because humidity fluctuates as temperatures rise and fall, so you have less control over this other crucial storage concern. For this reason, a wine refrigerator is your best bet for storing wine. Modern basements aren’t the same as grottoes with dirt floors, after all. Odds are good that yours is heated and well-lit, which means that it won’t work the same as a real, dedicated wine cellar. If you move in and out of the space to do laundry or work on projects, you’ll introduce temperature fluctuations that could harm your wine collection. A wine cooler solves this by allowing you to choose your temperature setting and walk away knowing your wine is protected.
Wine bottles should also be kept at steady humidity levels for long-term storage success. This is because the vast majority of bottles are corked, and cork plugs will expand when they are moist but shrink it conditions are too dry. Wines with a screw cap aren’t affected by humidity, but most people will have a mix of at least a few natural corks to deal with, so it’s best to control conditions for the most sensitive bottles to make sure you’re covered.
The ideal humidity for your wine storage area is 70 percent — not too moist, but not too dry. Happily, this relative humidity is easily achieved when the air temperature is about 55 degrees. Because humidity is measured in relative terms, it will fluctuate as temperatures change. Heat up your wine storage unit, and you’ll also increase the relative humidity (unless you do something to remove the moisture). Conversely, keeping your wine too cold over long periods means exposing it to drier conditions. (Ever notice how uncovered lettuce wilts outside the crisper drawer? It’s because a 38-degree fridge is too dry.)
The problem with low humidity is that corks will shrink, which can break the seal and allow air into your wine. This can prematurely age your wine — and not in a good way. In addition to oxidation changing red wines to brown and altering the flavor, a shrunken cork can also allow bacteria and mold spores to enter the wine and set up shop, which will ruin the flavor of any wine.
Remember how caves and cellars are traditional very dark? Keeping your wines out of direct sunlight — and preferably in as dark a place as you can manage — protects them from UV rays. Just as too much time in the sun will age your skin, so too will it age wine. Dark-colored glass bottles will help to some extent, but you’re better off keeping your collection out of the light. A dedicated wine fridge will help with this, particularly if it’s equipped with a light-filtering door and LED lights to reduce UV emissions.
Exposure to direct sunlight also has the potential to raise the temperature of your wine, which can speed the chemical process of aging and change the flavor of the wine. Wine tasting pros describe this as a “cooked” or “jammy” flavor, and it’s not good. Keep your wine rack or fridge out of direct sunlight — even if it only strikes for a few hours each day.
There’s a reason wine racks are designed to hold bottles on their sides. Keeping wine on its side allows the bottom of the cork to stay in contact with the wine, which keeps the cork moist and plump — thereby maintaining the all-important seal against the elements. When you store reds on their sides, you also maximize the surface are of the wine that comes in contact with the air, which gives you a head start on allowing the wine to breathe.
On the other hand, an opened bottle of wine should be stored upright until you finish it. This not only prevents leaks from a poorly fitted cap or cork, but it also puts a much smaller amount of wine in contact with the air, which will help it last longer now that it’s been exposed to the elements. As for shelf life, an opened bottle of white wine will last for a few days in the fridge, so drink up. An opened bottle of red may last for a couple of weeks at most. Sparkling wines need to be finished ASAP or they’ll go flat within the day.
Finally, wine bottles should be kept in a place where they aren’t subjected to lots of vibrations. Moving wine around frequently or keeping it near the furnace, clothes dryer or other major appliance can stir up sediment that normally has settled at the bottom of the bottle. This can alter the flavor and speed up the aging process, so it’s best to choose one location and position for your wine bottles and stick with it. Moving wine around to rotate it or just check out the labels will stir up the dregs and leave you with a less-than-stellar tasting experience.
The Worst Place to Store Your Wine
Given what you now know about storing fine wines, it’s easy to see where not to keep your favorite bottles. Too many people keep their wine in decorative wine storage racks in their kitchen or dining rooms, often where they are in direct sunlight and exposure to the heat of the stove. The kitchen counter is about the worst place you can keep your wine, considering the wide temperature fluctuations that come from cooking, not to mention the humidity variations (steamy pasta, anyone?)
Real wine lovers know that it’s better to invest in a dedicated wine cooler that in uninsulated racks, especially if you want to keep wine where you cook and entertain. A compact beverage cooler will fit the bill, and it can be placed just about anywhere, whether you keep it in the kitchen, your home bar area or — as tradition dictates — in the cellar.