Sour Grapes: Are Home Wine Cellars Worth It?

 

 
A wine cellar.

 

Like wine? I do. I’m no expert, but I drink enough wine I usually keep a number of bottles on hand. After all, you never quite know if you’ll want a Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet or something else to go with a particular meal. This brings up an interesting question: What’s the best way to store wine if you don’t have a wine cellar?

 

I'd like an Italian wine to go with the pasta.

Wine storage comes in all shapes and sizes. Some furniture or cabinets offers built-in storage. But is this really the best place to keep it? It depends.

It may be worth mentioning you already own a wine cellar. After all, a wine cellar is really little more than a place to store your wine. A wine rack in the dining or living room, a few cases in the back of the closet, or a filing cabinet in the garage all might qualify as wine cellars on some level. Sure, there are those passionate connoisseurs of the grape who spend thousands on a separate room in the house. Others less fortunate might buy a wine refrigerator, a specialty air conditioner or humidifier, or build custom wine racks. However, none of these are really necessary if the quantity of wine you store is small, the quality of the wine isn’t particularly high, or you seem to run through your stock fairly quickly.

 

As you learn more about wine and start thinking of it as your drink of choice (I know I do), the issue of wine storage becomes more important. Yes, the shoe closet may still suffice, but without realizing it, you can actually do a lot of damage to wine by storing it incorrectly. Of course, the more wine you have, the more important it is to stand up and take note.

 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the factors that affect a wine’s quality in regards to storage.

 

Not All Wine’s The Same.

 

Do we have another bottle in the wine cellar?

There are so many different types of wine. Some are worth aging, but some aren’t.

First off, it’s important to understand there’s a huge variation in the quality and variety of wine. Most wine that benefits from aging will need to be stored for years to taste noticeably different or better—in some cases many years or even decades. This means different wines may require different storage solutions. For example, there’s little reason to store cheap wine at all. It probably won’t improve with age and it’s easy to replace—just go back to the store and get another bottle.

 

There are also issues about wine types: White wine and red wine are two different beasts. Most whites are good when they’re still relatively young—even a few months will do the job in some cases. That means you won’t need to store them for extended periods of time. Most whites also do best when chilled so you may get by if you keep a few bottles in the refrigerator or if you buy one of those refrigerators made especially for wine. On the other hand, red wines will generally improve with age, but improvement depends on the type and quality of a particular vintage, and the conditions and length of time under which it’s stored.

 

Drink No Wine Before It’s Time

 

Some wines are ready to drink the moment a winemaker releases his product to the market. Others benefit substantially from aging, though this isn’t universal—some actually spoil after just a few years. And of those that may benefit from long term warehousing it could take years to reach their peak—anywhere from 3, 5, 10, 15 years or more!

 

How do you whether a wine you buy is worth aging? The best bet is to know your wine, which may mean talking to the person or company who made it. This may be easiest if you went to the winery’s tasting room and got the inside scoop, or if you can find an email address for the winemaker and he or she isn’t too busy to answer an inquiry. You might also check the winemaker’s website for recommendations.

 

Storing wine on the counter is a bad idea.

An open bottle on the counter has a limited life. Drink it or keep it in the refrigerator.

If talking to the winemaker isn’t a viable option, you might also try talking with a specialty wine store owner or manager. These people taste wines all the time, meet the people who make and sell them, and as a result, have lots of good insight on fine wines and whether to drink them right away or store them.

 

If you bought the bottle at a grocery store chances are you won’t get a whole lot out of the aging process unless it came from that special cellar where they store the “better” (and usually more-expensive) wines. If you buy one of these, talk to the person who heads up the wine department and get their recommendation.

 

How Hot Is Too Hot?

 

Besides light (which we’ll talk about in detail below) temperature might just be the most important factor in storing wines. Wine tastes best when it’s been stored in a cool dark place that has little to no variation in temperature. At the same time, storing wine where rapid changes in temperature occur poses a significant risk of spoilage.

 

Storing wine in my kitchen is a bad idea.

Storing wine in the kitchen, especially in a cabinet up high is not a good idea. There’s way too much temperature variation.

The reason rapid temperature change is such a critical issue is it can play havoc with corks, causing them to expand or contract. If enough air enters the bottle in the process, it can oxidize the wine and potentially make it undrinkable. The best temperature to store wine is a constant 55 degrees F. (13 degrees C). This allows for slower aging and can help develop a wines “complexity”. For more on complexity see our post, “Wine Tasting Part II: 5 Qualities“.

 

Wine stored at higher temperatures, for example 73 degrees F will “age” faster, up to 8 times faster, than wines stored at 55 degrees F. Unfortunately, this isn’t aging as we normally think of it—it’s more like “cooking” as it potentially affects the chemistry of the wine and that may negatively impact its taste. It’s worth noting that when a wine sits in a warm store or warehouse for any length of time it may develop certain characteristics of premature aging or cooking. One way to recognize premature aging is by looking at a wine’s color—a wine that’s unusually brown indicates oxidation or other chemical reactions have taken place. For an excellent article that delves into the detail on how temperature affects aging see WinePerspective.com.

 

Hey, Turn Off Those Lights!

 

A pretty display of wine bottles.

These bottles and labels may look pretty displayed in the light, but sunlight’s bad for the wine.

Light is another critical factor in storing wines. Depending on the color of glass used to make the wine bottle, light—especially sunlight or florescent lighting—can cause an undesirable chemical reaction within the wine. Even a few hours of the wrong light (that is, ultraviolent light) can potentially make it undrinkable. Chemically speaking, light can create the conditions which generate hydrogen-sulfide, dimethyl sulfide, and dimethyl disulfide. These sulfur compounds can smell like rotten eggs, rotten cabbage or a wet dog. To avoid this potential the safe bet is to store wine in a dark place. For a more technical discussion on how light affects wine see this article from EZineArticles.com.

 

Humidity

 

Humidity is yet a third element to consider when discussing wine storage. The drier the air within a cellar, the greater the chance it will draw moisture out of a cork, and thus, potentially ruin the wine by allowing air into it. To avoid the issue of corks drying out the safe bet is to (a) store wine bottles on the side to keep their corks moist, (b) monitor the wine cellar’s humidity, or (c) do both.

 

It’s worth mentioning those newer style artificial corks or screw top bottle caps may provide a better seal over the long haul. Unfortunately, it could take years to prove they offer a significant advantage over their more traditional counterparts. It would be interesting if better winemakers started offering both options and then held taste tests over the ensuing years to demonstrate any actual benefits of using one or the other.

 

Ideally, the humidity level in a cellar should be between 62.5% and 72.5%. However, unless you’re storing wines over 10 years improper humidity isn’t likely to hurt your wine. Typically, cellars lack sufficient humidity, especially if the air has been air-conditioned—air conditioning tends to dry the air out. If you know your cellar lacks sufficient humidity, placing some water in a bowl or tray on the cellar floor may help.

 

Too much humidity poses other risks. When the humidity is higher than 75% over an extended period, wine labels may fall off. In addition, insufficient air circulation can promote mold growth on the labels or in the worse case on the corks themselves.

 

Adequate airflow in wine cellars will prevent mold from accumulating in a cellar. To insure the air has the right humidity, a commercially available climate control system may be required.

 

Come On Baby Shake It Up

 

Many people suggest vibration is another factor to be avoided when it comes to storing wine. However, as there isn’t an easy way to quantify the effect over long stretches of time it’s hard to know the real impact.

 

Care for a little wine?

To avoid getting sediment in your glass, gently pour the wine in a decanter first.

Vibration aside, it’s always a good idea to avoid shaking up a bottle if it’s been sitting a long time. As wine ages, some sediment may sink to the bottom (or side if the bottle has been properly stored). It’s better to handle a bottle gently so as not to disturb this sediment. In fact, the suggested course is to take a bottle out of the cellar several hours prior to drinking it to allow any loose sediment on the sides to fall to the bottom. Then gently open and pour the wine into a decanter. By pouring the wine in such a way to avoid a glug, glug, glug sound, most sediment remains at the bottom of the bottle and there’s less chance of jarring loose any that’s still hanging on the sides.

 

Storing That Wine That’s Been Opened

 

Store your opened bottle of wine in the refrigerator.

Wine that’s been opened should be re-corked and stored in the refrigerator. It will keep much longer.

Ask most wine lovers how to store a bottle that’s been opened and they’ll tell you it isn’t even a consideration—you just drink it! However, for those who drink in moderation and end up with leftover wine, the best bet is to keep it in the refrigerator. The temperature of most modern refrigerators averages some 35 to 38 degrees.  As this is lower than 55 degrees it actually slows the aging of wine. Thus, re-corking and storing your bottle in the refrigerator is a better option than keeping it out on the kitchen counter where it’s exposed to more heat and light. A wine stored in the refrigerator can last for days or even weeks without going bad. One left out on the counter can go bad in a day or two. To warm a wine that’s been in the refrigerator, pour a glass and microwave it for 10 second bursts until it reaches room temperature. The actual time needed may vary depending on your microwave.

 

There’s More and Less Here Than Meets The Eye

 

Without doubt, the way you store your wine can affect its taste. However, it’s practically impossible to make blanket assertions about how much wine goes bad because of improper storage. Clearly, we drink a lot of wine which has been in warehouses or stores that are kept too warm or are far too bright. Much of the commercially available wine is also inexpensive enough it’s not worth making much of a fuss over storing it.

 

The issue or storing wine properly really comes into play when we run across a wine we enjoy and know it may benefit from one or more years of aging. In these instances, it’s worth treating it as you would any investment—with care. This means storing it in such a way to avoid excess heat or excess temperature variation, keeping it away from light, and storing the bottle on its side in a room or closet that’s not overly dry. Of course, if you decide wine is your thing, there are hundreds of companies happy to help design and build a custom wine cellar.

 

Easy Mistakes To Avoid

 

Even if you only keep a few bottles around the house, you can avoid some typical wine storage gaffes. How?

 

Don’t keep excess wine anywhere where the temperature varies a lot, like the laundry room, the kitchen or the garage. Also, avoid setting a wine rack where sunlight or excess room light is bound to hit it. It’s far better to put the wine in a closet (preferably downstairs), and when you do that, stick to the bottom instead of the top of the closet. Remember heat rises so it’s cooler down below. It’s also a good idea to store wine in where there aren’t a lot of odors. Corks do breathe (somewhat) so you’ll want to keep your wine away from those stinky old sox.

 

Finally, if you have white wine you’re keeping in an old refrigerator it’s better to drink it sooner rather than later. After a few months the standard 35 degrees or so in most refrigerators leads to dry air, and that dries out the corks. If any air seeps in and around the cork the wine might take on the smells of other foods kept in the refrigerator.

 

Sources:
WinePerspective.com “How Temperature Affects The Aging Of Wine
EZineArticles.Com “Can Light Really Affect My Wine
Wineanorak.com “Storing Wine: The Effect of Temperature And Humidity
The Wine Bible” by Karen McNeil
 

 

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