Getting into wine is a lot of fun, especially when you have that first ah-ha moment. You know what I’m talking about; it’s that moment when someone puts a glass in front of you that changes the way you think about wine. What was once an enjoyable beverage that also made you feel good suddenly transcended into being something deeper, something you wanted to understand better, something almost sensual. If you’re reading this blog, then it’s likely that you’ve experienced this moment in time, and, if not–then you really have something to look forward to.
The only problem is that once you have that moment, it’s usually followed by the desire to collect a variety of your favorite wines. Whether it’s to have them handy when you crave them, to have a selection to choose from when pairing them with a meal, or to watch them mature and evolve over time, this leads to the understanding that you need space to store them, and ultimately–space to “properly” store them.
I still remember the days when storing wine meant a rack on top of my refrigerator (which is a very bad place to store wine). That rack disappeared as I learned more about how heat and vibration affect wine. However, gaining this knowledge took time, and unfortunately a lot of spoiled bottles (yes, you can spoil a wine–or let’s say cook or oxidize). The information simply wasn’t out there at the time.
It was with this in mind that I decided to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about storing wine and to give my best answers and solutions. Do keep in mind, though, that I am not a scientist. However, what I am is a passionate wine collector who has learned through over a decade of study (drinking? No seriously, studying), because, for me, wine is my passion. The chase, the enjoyment, the intricacies and the great feeling of watching a perfectly matured wine unfold in front of a table of guests. You can only achieve this with a perfectly stored bottle of wine.
- Why do people age wine?
- Do all wines get better with age?
- Do I have to store my wine in a temperature-controlled cellar?
- Does storing wine require controlled humidity?
- Should red and white wines be stored at different temperatures?
- What are my options for storing wine?
- Where is the best place to store wine in my home?
Why do people age wine?
This often has to do with your ah-ha moment. For some of us, we come to realize that we love the primary fruit of young wines. In fact, there are many collectors who I know and respect a great deal who do not enjoy mature wine. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are many wines that are made to be enjoyed young, often from the same grape and region as a wine that is meant to be aged. One of the most eye-opening moments of my collecting life was the realization that in some countries, such as Italy, many of the wines that we mature for decades are consumed in their youth by the producers who make them. So the easy answer is preference.
For me, maturing a wine to perfection is the ultimate compliment to the grape, vintage, region and producer, as well as the ideal expression of the wine. In a mature wine, we find new layers of aroma and flavors that weren’t there in its youth. The word “tertiary” is often used to describe this, as the wine has gone through its infant and adolescent stages and is now mature. Also, the body of the wine changes. In many wines, the weight of the wine increases, and the feel of the textures become softer, silky or rounder. This is the result of the wine’s structural components binding together, becoming heavier, and sinking to the bottom of the bottle (which is part of the sediment you see in an older wine).
Do all wines get better with age?
No, not all, but understanding why is complicated.
For one thing, the reason why a wine ages well is balance. A balance of grape (or wood) tannin, acidity, and fruit will result in a wine that can stand the test of time. The amount of tannin found in some grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Syrah and Sagrantino, is very high. This is why a Barolo (made from Nebbiolo) is known as a wine that can age for fifty or more years. However, without that balance of acid and fruit, the wine would no longer be enjoyable, even when those tannins have resolved. Since tannin comes from the skin and seeds of the grape, that balance is usually found in seeking perfectly ripe grapes. While some regions like Northeastern Italy can have trouble reaching that perfect ripeness in time, other regions like Napa Valley have to work to make sure that the grapes don’t become too ripe.
However, there is another way to add tannin to wine, and that’s through the aging of that wine in new barrels. In this case, it is the wood tannin that is added to low-tannin grapes such as Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Barbera. A good winemaker can balance the wine through wood aging in a way that it will mature gracefully. This is why you’ll find many Pinot Noir drinkers who seek early enjoyment in the wines and others that will age them for a decade or more (think red Burgundy).
In the end, though, balance is the key, and some wines that you wouldn’t consider to be tannic at all will age very well, such as Riesling. In the case of Riesling, we have a white grape with a firm acid structure, density of fruit and often elevated sugar levels. With this balance, Riesling can be aged for decades.
Having said all of that, keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with wine that is meant to be consumed in its youth. The ability to age a wine has nothing to do with the quality of that wine or its value.
Some easy guidelines to follow: If a producer uses a screwcap closure on their wine, then they most likely expect you to drink it young. Also, certain styles of wine that are made to be enjoyed upon release include Beaujolais, Zinfandel, Dolcetto, New Zealand Pinot, Shiraz, Pinot Grigio, Cava, Moscato, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Do I have to store my wine in a temperature-controlled cellar?
The easy answer is yes. When I was first starting out, it was explained to me that any wine I expected to drink in the first year of its life did not need to be stored under temperature control. This was some of the worst advice that anyone had ever given me. Bring your mind back to the image of that wine rack over the refrigerator, which is a very common place for people to store wine. Place your hand on the back, top of your fridge–It’s hot, and it’s also vibrating while the compressor is on.
Here’s a fact: Wine is a perishable product. If a wine spends too much time subjected to heat, then it will cook. The fruit will take on a stewed or sometimes raisined quality. If a wine gets even hotter, the liquid can expand and push its way around the cork (or push the cork up), which breaks the natural seal and results in oxygen seeping into the bottle and prematurely oxidizing the wine.
To this day, many consumers and even retailers don’t understand this. My ah-ha moment was the first time that someone put a glass of wine in front of me that wasn’t bought from a corner liquor store, jostled around in a bag on the way home, and then served at 75 degrees (the average kitchen temperature in an american home). Instead, it was served at room temperature (which is around 65 degrees–or lower) and it was sourced from a responsible vendor who stored the wine properly.
What’s more, if you want your wine to age into a perfectly mature wine, then it absolutely needs to be stored at the right temperature, which is widely recognized to be 55 degrees. This goes back to a time before our homes had thermostats, when wine was stored in subterranean cellars that saw very small and slow shifts in temperature between seasons.
Does storing wine require controlled humidity?
Yes, again. However, when a wine is very young and the cork is very new, humidity isn’t as vital as it is when wine matures. Granted, you wouldn’t want to store any wine in a completely dry environment, because even a new cork will sooner or later dry out and allow oxygen to seep in or wine to seep out. As wine and its cork matures, humidity becomes even more important, because the cork needs to maintain a firm seal. The ideal humidity for storing wine is at 80%.
Should red and white wine be stored at different temperatures?
Not for the maturing of wine over time (such as that Riesling you plan to open in twenty years), but for serving, it can be very helpful to keep white wine colder than red. Many wine storage units give you the option for temperature zones. For serving, I will usually keep my reds at 60 and my whites at 45 degrees. (Tip: Most people drink their white wine too cold, which mutes the flavors).
What are my options for storing wine?
The Home Wine Cellar
I think that a wine cellar in your home is the dream of almost all wine lovers. The idea that you can descend the stairs into a cool, quiet and dimly-lit environment to pick out a bottle to share with friends and family is one of the most romantic ideas of all.
The fact is that a wine cellar can be as simple as shelves that keep your wine or cases off the floor, all the way up to custom-made racks that wind around the room with LED lighting (LED lights don’t generate heat) murals, tiled floors and all the paraphernalia that a wine connoisseur desires or needs. The important things are temperature and humidity, which can be obtained through insulation and by buying and installing a cooling unit. Some of the best manufacturers in the market include: WhisperKool, CellarPro and Wine Guardian. For all of your racking needs, I’ve had excellent result and service from Wine Cellar Innovations.
Of course, building your own custom wine cellar can be quite an undertaking, and unless you are either looking for another hobby (beyond collecting wine) or are an experienced carpenter, mason and electrician, it’s often best to contact a professional installer. At the top of the game, and highly recommended, is Joseph and Curtis.
What’s a passive wine cellar?
I’m glad you asked. A passive cellar is one that does not depend on a cooling/hydrating unit to regulate the atmosphere. However, you need to have the ideal space to create such a cellar. The first and most important thing to consider when trying to decide if you can build a passive cellar is if you have a subterranean space in your home (a space that is completely underground). I can tell you from experience that I tried for years to create a passive cellar in a room that was 1 ½ feet short of being subterranean, and no matter how many tips and tricks I used to try to perfect it–every summer I had to put my wine in storage, as the temperatures rose above 74 degrees. Also important is that the space has naturally high humidity and an weather insulated door that seals it from any hot water heaters or steam boilers. Concrete walls are a big help too.
However, if you have the location, then a passive cellar is just fine. Many wine collectors I know and trust use passive cellars, and the wines they pull from these cellars are fantastic. Even if the labels are sometimes covered in mold.
A Wine Storage Unit
The main issue here is space–that and finding the right unit.
When I purchased my first wine storage unit, I could never have imagined having more than 50 bottles of wine in my collection, and boy was I wrong.
A wine storage unit is usually a freestanding unit that is essentially a small refrigerator with pull-out racks where you can store your wine. However, this is one of the pitfalls of wine storage units, in that most of them really are just small refrigerators and they don’t regulate humidity, isolate vibration, or maintain a regulated temperature. This is fine if you are just looking for an easy under-the-counter solution for short-term wine storage and serving. However, it becomes a problem if you are hoping to use the unit for long-term storage and maturing of wines. The best bet is to go with trusted brands that have proven track records.
Although expensive, Eurocave has become one of the most trusted brands for wine storage. These units start as low as a couple of thousand dollars and go up from there depending on the capacity of bottles, UV glass doors, digital displays, dual zones and such. The most important thing is to plan this investment out wisely. Don’t make my mistake of underestimating your appetite for collecting.
Other well known and respected units include: Le Cache (gorgeous wood inlaid but expensive), Vinotheque, and VInotemp. Just remember that the most important thing is a constant regulated temperature. However, controlled humidity and isolated vibration are big pluses.
Professional Storage (the pros and cons)
There are a lot of pros to having your wine stored professionally and only a few small cons. After ten years of collecting (and living in New York City), I now store 95% of my collection in professional storage. First, let’s get the cost-over-time out of the way. If you have the space and proper location in your home, then in the long run it makes the most sense to build a cellar. In twenty years’ time (a blink of the eye in wine terms), you’ll reap the rewards. However, if space is limited, then pro storage is the way to go.
- Most companies have a variety of pickup and packing options, and you get to decide what’s worth the cost to you or not. I pack and deliver all of my wine, which saves me a bundle. However, I could opt to have them do it for me.
- The peace of mind that the temperature and humidity of your wine is kept constant and monitored by the storage staff (assuming you found a reputable company).
- Some companies have lockers that allow you to move your wine around, while others store in a large warehouse yet allow you to tour the warehouse when requested. Some have both. (It’s really a preference more than anything.)
- Most companies provide inventory services, evaluations, insurance options and delivery.
You never have to worry about opening a bottle of wine that’s way too young after a long night of partaking with friends (funny I know, but it happens all the time).
- You don’t have instant access to your wine. Most companies require at least a 24-hour turnaround.
- Out of sight, out of mind can be good and bad, as I’ve watched people let bottles mature too far because they forgot they even had them.
- It’s not cheap, but you have to weigh the options of the price of a storage unit, electricity used over time, or the large cost of building a cellar.
In the end, professional storage was my choice, and I highly recommend the place that has done a great job with my wine for seven years now–even before I worked for the parent company: Vintage Wine Warehouse
Where is the best place to store wine in my home?
Here we are talking about bare-bones minimums.
If you’re living in a New York City apartment, surprisingly the bottom of a coat closet is a fantastic place to store your bottles. It’s dark, away from radiators, with a door that is usually closed, which helps to regulate temperatures. It won’t work for long-term storage, but it beats nearly all other locations in a New York dwelling. You can easily buy a small wine rack to fit, or construct your own.
If you have a house, then look to your basement, but be careful not to place them anywhere near water heaters or steam boilers. It’s also good to keep them off the floor in case of flooding. One genius idea from a friend was to store his bottles on racks made of curved clay roof tiles that were turned upside down. The clay formed a natural protection from temperature swings.
To Sum It All Up
So that’s it. I think I’ve answered nearly all of the most commonly-asked questions that I get about wine storage. I’m always happy to answer more, so feel free to ask. And please do keep in mind, I speak from experience, not from a textbook.
Remember, if you keep them cool, keep them dark, keep them humid, and keep them vibration-free–then you’ll enjoy your wine collection for decades.
Article by: Eric Guido
For Professional Installations, check out: Joseph and Curtis
For all of your wine rack needs, visit: Wine Cellar Innovations
For Professional Storage Solutions visit: Vintage Wine Warehouse