How to Store Wine Properly

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Beautiful old underground cellar in Burgundy

I had a very bad experience recently in a wine bar in Sarasota (Florida) where approximately 75% of the wines were BAD. I’m not saying the wine selection was necessarily awful in the first place (maybe a little bit) but the problem was something else: poor storage conditions causing premature death of the wines.

Last night, watching Tony from the popular show “The Soprano’s” put bottles of Château Pichon Longueville 1986 (a beautiful wine by the way) on shelves, under the window in his basement also made me want to talk about this topic. Here are some guidelines to help you store wine correctly.

The perfect cellar is underground, humid, dark, with a constant low temperature and a dirt floor. Although such a cellar is common in old houses in Europe, it is harder to find in more modern houses let alone apartments.

Temperature

Temperature is a primary factor when it comes to the evolution of a wine. It influences a bottle’s “life expectancy” majorly. Basically, the warmer it is, the faster the wine will mature. The perfect storage temperature is somewhere between 53 and 57°F (12-14°C).

Wine’s worst enemy is temperature fluctuation. While a warm cellar will only make bottles mature faster,  it won’t cause too much harm. On the other hand, violent variations will simply kill wine. This is precisely why Tony Soprano made a mistake by putting such an old and fragile bottle in his basement that will most likely be cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

I recall talking about this with a merchant in Bordeaux doing a great deal of export. He was explaining to me how the wines would “die” every single time the boats were crossing the Equator. What a shame for the buyers! From now on, he makes sure that importers he works with, use refrigerated containers.

That means two things:

1) If you’re serious about storing wine, you need a constant temperature in your cellar. Preferably around 55°F.

2) Before buying an expensive imported wine at your local wine shop, maybe you should consider the importing conditions and how serious your retailer and his distributors are about this. In my opinion, this is a fundamental point.

Humidity

Humidity is often an overlooked factor. Yet it is one of the main components of good storage. A dry cellar is another enemy of wine.

The ideal humidity level is around 70%. Under that level, the corks dry out and wine evaporates (and gets oxidized faster). An oxidized wine is defective and is heading toward “death”. Note that a warm temperature aggravates this.

Don’t be scared by damaged labels on old bottles, as it is actually a proof of appropriate humidity.

Light

Light is another adversary to wine.  White wines are particularly sensitive to it and get a “taste of light” when overly exposed.

It is especially true for bottles made with white glass as ultra violet rays get through it easily. Therefore, a good cellar must be as dark as possible.  

If your basement/cellar/garage is too light, I suggest to let the bottles in their case.

Ventilation

A good ventilation and fresh air are also necessary to store wine properly. For some reason, a constant bad or musty smell will affect wine even in a sealed bottle.

As a final word, I can’t stress enough how crucial storage conditions are to let wine age and mature. Even the best and most expensive bottles don’t resist heat or dryness. I have attended countless dinners and tastings with disappointing (sometimes undrinkable) bottles because of where and how they were kept. And yet, I have rarely been as amazed by old vintages stored in my family’s cellar, built by my father according to the basic rules above cited.

I recommend to choose a wine merchant or a shop who’s very serious about those questions. That way, you’ll avoid a lot of flawed bottles.

For those living in apartments, artificial cellars (temperature and humidity controlled cabinets like a refrigerator which keep wine at pre-ordained temperatures in different parts of it) seem like a good option.

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