Wine Storage 101

Wine Storage BasicsThere is true science and chemistry to the aging process. The process and reactions are understood, but vintages, growth patterns, sugar contents and grape varieties vary. Hence the need for vintage charts and blends. Proper wine storage is an art a combination of science, palate and chemistry. Part of the picture is to create a constant environment to increase the probability of a given outcome and to remove as many variables as possible. There is a little luck involved in the science and the mystery of wine. All wines need some ageing…whether it is in the barrel or bottle all wines will improve to some degree…others improve in infinitum. But there are never guarantees. Some wines improve that shouldn’t while others degrade that should be good for years…but that is the mystery of the process. The luck of the draw is to find the peak of perfection and to enjoy the successes. In our “immediate need” society people have a tendency to drink wines …now… and not give them the time and proper storage they deserve. Experts all agree that proper storage is paramount yet collectors and consumers cut too many corners. Negative effects of improper storage take their toll and “accumulate” over time. One episode of overheating or too much light starts the chemistry down a path that is irreversible and may shorten the lifespan of the wine…it may not ruin the wine, but it will have a significant and lasting effect on bouquet and flavor. Sometimes the differences are subtle and other times it is pronounced. The differences may not be noticed by most novices, unless they have a sample of a properly stored wine to compare it to.

All wine has a shelf life…all wine is perishable. There is not sufficient alcohol to preserve it forever. There are sugars and fruit that can” spoil” and degrade. All wines will eventually “go bad” or at very least change character into an undesirable less robust and favorable state without proper storage. Even the best wines, wines that can be aged for years (and will continue to improve in the right environment) will degrade in under a year without proper storage.

Storage requirements vary by variety, blend, quality as well as its intended use. Wines from the Grand Cru’s of France or the limited “cult wines” of California are blended for a minimum of 2+ years of bottle storage and produced for the eventual consumption by a trained palate. These wines need the strictest control available…. There is no need to control the aging process for cooking wine (although Julia Childs would might argue as she would never cook with anything she would not drink) or the “ready to drink” wines produced for the local grocery store in mass…most wine purchased…go home and get drunk while unpacking the groceries….but even those wines can be stored for 8-12 months if kept with reasonable storage conditions.

Storage Needs of the Enthusiast & Collector

Enthusiasts and collectors of premium wine have more serious storage needs. They maintain large and/or valuable collections. Due to the sheer size of some of the collections, even “ready-to-drink” wine tends to go unopened for long periods. With the negative consequences of improper storage increasing with time, all the wine is susceptible if not stored properly. The collector/enthusiast also participates in premium age-worthy wines. These wines improve with age and may only reach their full potential after 5, 10 and up to 25 years in the bottle. If you do the math and drink 4 bottles a month..1 per week…that is 48 bottle per year…not too much….but if you are storing this wine for ten years it adds up to a minimum of 480 bottles or 40 cases….this requires space! And good storage is a pre-requisite for this type of product.

Wine Storage Basics | Six Critical Elements

Average Temperature

The ideal temperature for wine storage is 13ºC to 15C (55ºF to 59F). Wine is a complex and fragile balance of amino acids, phenols, carbohydrates and other chemical compounds. Aging wine is a series of different chemical reactions between these compounds and the minute quantities of oxygen allowed into the bottle through the cork. These reactions are easily affected by physical and chemical changes taking place in the environment. Since the speed of the average chemical reaction increases with temperature (the rate doubles for every 10ºC increase in temperature), wine hardly ages at all if stored below about 10ºC (50ºF). Place it at 78ºF, and an age worthy wine that would normally require ten years of careful aging, may be past its prime in just a few months.

Temperature Stability

Wine must be kept in an environment where temperature is constant and stable. An acceptable level of temperature fluctuation is said to be about 2-3ºC (5ºF) around the average once per year. This is the single most important factor to storage….log this temperature…watch it carefully….Larger facilities gain stability from shear size…the wine itself helps to “store energy” the more mass…the more stability. A compelling argument for none home storage…even the best of the home lockers fluctuate more than desirable levels for long term storage. Fluctuations in temperature allow more air/oxygen into the wine. As the environment warms up, the wine (and air) in the bottle warms up and expands. The only thing that can give is the cork. Either the cork moves out slightly, or some of the air (or wine when stored on its side) will push past the cork. As the air cools, the contents of the bottle will contract, drawing air/oxygen into the bottle. Over many temperature fluctuations, quite a bit of this outside air can actually replace the wine. This leads to the low fill level or ullage as it is called seen in older bottles. Fluctuations must be minimized in both magnitude and frequency. Fluctuations of only 1.5ºC (3ºF) can be very damaging to wine if they occur on a daily basis.

Humidity

Relative humidity levels can be anywhere between 50 and 80 percent. Not enough humidity and the cork dries….simple as that…with a dry cork air gets in and wine get out…hot and cold increases the oxygen levels and the wine spoils… Humidity too high…and the risk of mold and mildew can ruin the wine….sometimes called “corked” wines.

Ventilation

Wine needs to be kept in an odor-free environment. Strong odors just as the mildew above can ‘flavor wine” this is caused by the gas exchange that takes place around the cork. Never store fruits, vegetables, cheeses or any other food that is capable of fermenting.

Darkness

Wine should not be subjected to excessive amounts of light. Light breaks down the molecules in wine, just as light breaks down the furniture on your deck. Most wines have dark glass to help mitigate this, but this alone is not enough. Little or no light is a must to allow the wine to age and not breakdown. Exposure to light will age a bottle of wine prematurely. Ultraviolet light will penetrate even dark-colored glass, but it is clear bottles and sparkling wines that are most susceptible. Ultraviolet light may impart unpleasant aromas that can ruin your wine.

Security

Although not an environmental condition, the issue of security is an important one. One we take seriously at WineKeeper Idaho. Collections can easily add up to 10′s of thousands of dollars even one that is considered a minor collection can top $100K …collections have been known to be valued in the millions….Home security, home cellars with basic above ground drywall and especially the home style “lockers” cannot offer the protection needed from fire, theft, or the worst of them all… loss of power. Home units cannot offer refrigeration necessary to maintain the same quality given by a commercially cooled and humidity controlled, below ground facility. Home systems also do not offer world-wide paging (and if you are on vacation who is going to let the repairman in?) nor do they have state of the art computer controls and back up systems without spending a personal fortune. Many a Collector has returned from vacation to find their years of collecting gone to a heat wave and a power outage.