Wine storage is a luxurious hobby for some and a point of necessity for connoisseurs. No matter how avid the drinker, wine does not discriminate and, so long as it is stored properly, will delightfully offer up its blended flavors.
Unlike most food and drink, wine improves for years. The history of wine has not always reflected on the delicate balance required for wine storage.
An ancient Persian fable credits a lady of the court with the discovery of wine. The Princess, having lost favor with the King, tried to poison herself by eating spoiled table grapes. She became intoxicated and giddy and fell asleep. When she awoke, the stresses that had made life intolerable had diminished. She returned to the source of her relief and her remarkable change in conduct allowed her to regain favor with the King.
Whether or not this story is fact or fiction, wine was certainly discovered by accident. It is established that grape cultivation and wine drinking date back to 4000 BC and possible as early as 6000 BC.
The oldest bottle of wine can be seen at the History Museum de Pfalz, near Speyer, Germany. Unearthed during excavation for the building of a house in a vineyard near the town, it was inside one of two Roman stone sarcophaguses. The bottle dates from approximately 325 AD and was found in 1867. The greenish-yellow glass handles were formed into the shape of dolphins. One of several bottles discovered, it is the only one with the contents still preserved.
The ancient liquid has much grainy sediment and about two-thirds of the contents are a thick, hazy mixture. The mixture is believed to mostly be olive oil, which was used to preserve the wine from oxidation. This olive oil method has been effective enough to keep the wine from evaporating up to modern day.
Unaware of the damaging effect poor wine making, dirty wine storage containers, disturbance, and exposure to air and sunlight can have on the flavor and aging of wine, wine making was operated on the assumption that new wine was the best wine.
The Romans however, found that wine stored tightly in a closed container improved with age without going bad. In fact, some Roman wines were successfully kept as long as 100 years. Much of the insight they gained into suitable wine storage was unfortunately lost with the empire.
Since the time of Rome, wines have been aged in varying degrees of success. It wasn’t until the rediscovery of the cork, which the Romans used, along with improvements of the bottle, that storing wine and aging it rose to a whole new level.
Until the 1600’s, glass bottles were thin, fragile and expensive. The English King James I proclaimed that all glass makers were to stop using wood in their furnace so as not to deplete the forests. His proclamation inadvertently changed the history of wine as glass makers began burning coal, which allowed for hotter fires.
Sir Kenelm Digby is credited for inventing modern day wine storage bottles. Digby was able to make bottles that were thicker and stronger, with the unknown benefit of also being darker, thus allowing less light penetration. These bottles were able to be produced much cheaper than older methods. Once these new bottles were corked, they became the ideal wine storage container for the maturing of wines. In the 1700’s wine was made on a larger scale with the deliberate intent of bottle ageing.
Still, most of the wines of the world are meant to be drunk young, while they still possess their youth and freshness. Most wines meant for storing and bottle ageing are red wines as very few white wines need time to mature. There is however, no doubt that all wine benefits from even a few days of rest.
It has been said that dinner without wine is like a kiss without love. With that said, appropriate wine storage is the single most important ingredient when ageing wine. The ideal place for wine storage is a dark, roomy, damp cellar with a single discreet entrance to which only you have the key. Imagine it lined with wine racks yet still having masses of room to walk around and complete with a little tasting corner for you to enjoy your collection. Alas, such a cellar only exists in the world of fantasy for most of us.
Finding a place to store our home furnishings can be difficult enough, let alone such a place with the conditions required for wine storage. Outbuildings typically don’t provide a consistent and appropriate temperature for wine storage, while indoor places are usually kept too warm. With most families finding themselves on the short end of having enough closet space, nooks and crannies or spare rooms, devoting a portion of square footage to the proper conditions for wine storage is sometimes more commitment than a homeowner is willing to make. Some acceptable places to store wine might be found in an attic, basement, under the sink, closet, pantry, old fireplace, under the stairs, or even in the corner of a room under an insulation blanket. The worst place to store wine is by the stove or atop the refrigerator where there are frequent blasts of hot or cold air.
Several alternatives to wine storage include professional wine storage with merchants specializing in wine storage or from the merchant you purchase wine from, an artificial cellar similar to a refrigerator cabinet that controls the temperature and humidity, a spiral cellar which is placed underground, and several other racks and wine storage units that can be placed in your home.
When considering your options for wine storage these are the variable you must keep in mind: ullage, temperature, humidity, darkness, environment, vibration and angle of storage.
Air is the enemy of wine. Wine stored in bottles has a certain amount of air, or space that is void of wine, this space is referred to as ullage. Because of this, bottle size plays some part in storing wine. The larger the bottle, the less airspace per milliliter of wine which results in better storage conditions for the maturing of wine. Larger bottles increase the lifespan of wines and generally produce a better wine.
Nothing spoils wine faster than too much air. Air causes wine to lose its freshness and to oxidize. The result of oxidation is premature ageing and vinegar will be the end result. The cork plays a major role in ageing wine and ensures that wine stays fresh and keeps a good air exchange.
Once a bottle has been opened, if you don’t expect to drink the remainder for a few days, it’s suggested that you transfer the leftover to a smaller wine bottle for storage to reduce the ratio of ullage to wine.
A casual drinker may store wine just about anywhere that is not exposed to light or heat and drink the wine within one year of purchase.
Temperature is the most important factor in wine storage and should be sought after above all others. Wine storage can be done safely at temperatures varying from just above freezing up to 70 degrees. The idyllic temperature for wine storage is between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit (10-12 degrees Celsius) and is considered optimal for the biochemical development as wine matures.
The scale and rapidity of fluctuation and in temperature is more important than the actual temperature. A slow ten degree change of temperature between winter and summer poses no threat to the development of wine. This rate of fluctuation on a daily or weekly basis will damage wine, causing it to age prematurely. Damage can be noted from sticky deposits that form around the capsule. The wine will also expand and contract, damaging the cork and possibly allowing oxygen to seep in.
Wine stored at too high a temperature will cause the wine to age faster than wine stored at a cooler temperature. Theoretically speaking, a wine stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit will age twice as fast as a wine stored a 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Wines age slowly around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing the wine greater complexity.
Wine stored at too cool a temperature can cause the cork to shrink, thus letting air into the wine. Wine that is stored too cold may also develop deposits or suspensions in it.
White wines are affected by temperature problems more than red wines. A constant temperature is what you should strive for when storing wine.
A moderately high level of humidity is important to keep the cork in a good resilient condition in order to prevent it from shrinking. Maintaining a level of 50-70% humidity is important for optimal wine storage and ageing of fine wine.
Insufficient humidity may cause the cork to dry out, lose elasticity and shrink, thereby allowing air to oxidize the wine.
Humidity levels kept too high wine label become damaged as well as any other paper products, like cardboard boxes, to rot. High humidity levels also allow micro-organisms to grow in the wine storage cellar or even spoil the wine.
Ultraviolet rays penetrate wine bottles and cause tannins to oxidize, resulting in irreparable damage to fine wines. Ultraviolet rays may give a wine an unpleasant aroma, thus ruining the wine.
Colored bottles help shield wine from sunlight, but ultraviolet light will penetrate even dark colored glass. For proper wine storage, wine should not rely on colored glass alone. Storing wine in dark conditions is best to keep wine safe. It should also be noted that incandescent or sodium vapor lights are better for wine storage than fluorescent lighting.
Sparkling wines are more sensitive to light and should be given extra care when storing these wines.
Clean air is vital for the preservation and storage of wine. Because wine breathes through the cork, extraneous smells can enter through the cork and contaminate the wine. For this reason, the space should be free of chemicals, odors, and other debris that could be home to insects that might infect the cork. Untreated wood, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and other food should not be combined with your wine storage.
Proper ventilation will also keep the cellar from giving the wine a musty taste.
Vibration interferes with aging and stirs up sediments necessary in the maturing process. Once a wine is laid down, it should stay there until it is opened.
Vibration from machinery and nearby roads or trains can be harmful to wine. Excessive sound also creates vibrations that could be harmful. Wines should also be stored in such a way that you don’t have to shift them around to reach a particular bottle. These should be part of your consideration when choosing a place for wine storage.
Angle of Storage
Table wine is stored horizontally so that the wine stays in contact with the cork, thereby keeping the cork moist and preventing air from entering the wine.
Fortified wines other than port are stored standing. Screw capped bottles may also be stored at any angle.
Laying the bottle with the label up will also make it easier to find what you’re looking for while allowing you to see the sediment deposits on the side opposite the label. This will also eliminate the need to shift bottles around which would disturb the sediment.
Wine is alive and reacts as such, either positively or negatively to its environment. How it is cared for will determine how it will turn out in the end. In essence, wine needs to be stored in a clean, cool, damp, dark place with little disturbance and good ventilation. Consistent, as opposed to exact, conditions mature wine best.
It has been said of wine that, ”Water separates the people of the world, but wine unites them and makes life divine.“ Wine spans distance and time and brings people together to celebrate, fall in love, mourn, cry, honor cherish one another.