Part 3: Proper Wine Storage (1 of 3)

Part 3: Proper Wine Storage (1 of 3)

Master Sommelier John Szabo presents a series of articles offering practical advice on building a wine cellar as a source of personal enjoyment and investment. This is Part 3, which will consist of three instalments.

Wine bottles in temperature controlled storage.
Wine is a complex and fragile mix of compounds that must be protected from the elements. (Courtesy CellArt)

In parts one and two of this series I covered how to create your own ideal cellar profile, how to establish a logical buying strategy, and how to calculate the storage space you’ll need. In this (and future) post I’ll cover the optimal conditions you should aim for in your cellar.

Firstly, consider “cellaring” wine to be any period longer than 3–4 months. Assuming no extremes in the storage conditions — away from direct sunlight, between of 40°F and 65°F with minimal fluctuation, and relative humidity greater than 50 percent) — the vast majority wines won’t change that much, for better or for worse, in that time frame. And, so, specialized storage is not an issue. Often a basement will do. But any longer than that and you start to run risks.

It’s common knowledge that fine wine must be stored under strictly controlled conditions in order to mature favorably, and hopefully increase in value along the way. Cellaring wine for five, ten or even 50 years is necessary for some wines to reach their full potential. And since the negative consequences of sub-optimal conditions is magnified over time, proper storage is essential.


Storing and Aging Fine Wines

For ageing fine wine mid- or long-term, there are seven critical elements to consider:

  • temperature
  • temperature stability
  • humidity
  • ventilation
  • darkness
  • vibrations
  • security


Respecting the best practices for each of these elements will ensure that a wine will reach its full potential and retain or gain its maximum value.


The Importance of Temperature

Wine is a complex and fragile mix of compounds. During ageing, a series of chemical reactions occurs between these compounds in the presence of minute quantities of oxygen that might have been present at bottling, or that have entered through the cork or capsule over time (yes, even screwcaps allow some oxygen in). Basic chemistry dictates that raising the temperature of a chemical reaction results in a faster reaction rate. Particles move faster and with greater force and energy, resulting in more collisions with one another and the formation of new compounds. This is generally a good thing, creating new compounds that result in a more complex wine with smoother texture. It’s the reason we age wines in the first place.  

On the contrary, lowering the temperature slows the rate of reactions (less energetic, slower moving particles), and a wine takes longer to develop those sought-after, complex compounds.   Centuries of experience has established that the optimum temperature for wine storage is thus between about 52°F to 58°F. Wine hardly ages at all if stored below about 40°F. Above 78°F, an age worthy wine may be past prime (oxidized, cooked) in a matter of months.


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Temperature Variation

It’s tempting to think that storing wine at a higher temperature will simply shave off years of cellaring to reach prime maturity. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. A bottle stored at a higher temperature than recommended will always be inferior and develop less desirable flavours compared to one stored to maturity at the correct (lower) temperature. Although chemical reactions accelerate with rising temperature, they accelerate at different rates. High temperatures, for example, cause polyphenols (mainly tannin and colour pigments) to precipitate at a faster rate than sugars and acids are reacting to form new compounds, resulting in wine that looks old but tastes undeveloped. High temperatures also cause premature loss of desirable fruity and floral aromas, through rapid ester and glycoside hydrolysis, if you must know, resulting in dull aromatics.

Very low temperatures, on the other hand, will simply slow down the ageing process without necessarily damaging the wine (as long as it stays above freezing). However, an associated concern is the potential damage caused by the typically low humidity levels in colder environments (cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air). Corks are more likely to dry out and allow excessive oxygen into the wine. Incidentally, this is why long-term storage in a refrigerator is a bad idea — humidity is always too low, though note that this not a problem for wines under screw cap, crown cap, glass top, or any other inert closure.

To be continued…

Check it out Part One and Part Two in the series.

>> Are you experiencing temperature or humidity issues in your cellar? Our team of experts have saved many home cellars and transformed them back into stable wine environment. Get in touch to set up a consultation.