Gollum, the character from Lord of the Rings, lived most of his life in the underbelly of earth. What else likes those dark, damp, cool places? Wine does. Wine is often stored in caverns and wine caves, far away from the light and where the temperature and humidity is controlled . Gollum would feel right at home in a wine cave except for the fact that most of these caves don’t have a fish pond to catch and eat one’s dinner!
- Keep Away from the Light
To quote another movie, STAY AWAY FROM THE LIGHT. Light has an adverse effect on wine because it can react with the phenolic compounds in wine.
Phenolic compounds include hundreds of compounds, including something you’re likely very familiar with – tannins. In combination these compounds affect taste, color, and the feel of wine in your mouth. Wine makers try very hard to have your wine taste a certain way. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours, are spent trying to get your wine to taste a certain way. Even cheap wine. So the last thing you want is to alter the taste through light.
Wine is often stored in darkly tinted wine bottles to keep light from altering the taste. If you have bottles that are packaged in clear, light green or blue tinted bottles you have the greatest risk of having your wine ruined.
Given these facts, it goes without stating that your wine should be stored away from light sources (not just the sun). However, if you have clearer tinted wine bottles you may want to take extra precautions (e.g. keeping wine in temperature controlled and dark place).
One last thing to keep in mind…be particularly careful with white wines since they are the most vulnerable. The reason for this is that tannins act like a buffer and red wines have more tannins.
- Humidity is Our Friend
Have you ever left a bottle of wine open for a few days and then drank it? Tastes like drinking vinegar, prune juice and smells abrasive to say the least, right? That’s a rookie maneuver you usually only make once in high school.
The reason wine tastes so bad when left open is because oxygen and wine cause a chemical reaction that is not good, in the long-run, for wine. Long periods of oxidation can make wine taste like vinegar.
So guess how you can start the oxidation process prematurely… by having too dry of a wine cork? Dry wine corks can crack and if a cork cracks, it can allow oxygen to seep into the bottle. Too much oxygen in the wine over a long period of time can ruin your wine. So moisture in the form of humidity is good for your wine.
This process should not be confused with the wine term “corked”, which has to do with having TCA (a chemical compound derived from fungi in the cork) in the wine. The two maladies have completely different taste and smell profiles. Corked wine tastes like damp or rotten cardboard or even a smelly dog; whereas oxidized wine tastes like vinegar or flat.
You can tell if your wine has been oxidized by looking at the color. White wines will turn darker and red wines will turn a brick color.
- Lie on Your Belly
You probably noticed that most wine refrigerators and wine caves have the wine bottles on their side. There actually is a reason for that and it’s not to sneak up on an unsuspecting meals (like Gollum does). The reason is related to the aforementioned topic of keeping the wine cork from getting dry.
Research in the 1990s has shown that wine at a slight angle to horizontal is ideal for keeping a wine cork moist and preventing it from getting damaged. Completely horizontal is not good for storing wine bottles either because then the small air bubble inside is not at the top of the bottle. Instead it would be towards the middle, which is bad. By having the air bubble or “ullage” at the top of the bottle, some air can escape through the cork instead of diffused through the wine. A slower aging process makes for better aged wine or so it has been argued.
There is an exception to the slightly horizontal rule and that is Sparkling wine (including those from the Champaign French region). Sparkling wine has compressed carbonic gas found in it that already keeps it from oxidizing, so there is little risk from having a dry wine cork.
- Not Too Hot and Not Too Cold
Like Goldilocks, wine doesn’t like it too hot or too cold. I think most wine enthusiasts get this. I mean that’s why Amazon sold like a million wine refrigerators last year. However, there is still a lot to learn about temperature and wine storage that is not as common knowledge:
If wine goes above 77° F (25° C) a chemical reaction starts to take place, which is loosely known as “cooking”. This does not mean that the wine is immediately ruined, it just means that the process to ruining your wine starts. If left too long at that temperature the wine can taste stewed or burnt and the color changes more brown.
If your wine gets too hot, like 90° F and above, you can really start to boil and ruin your wine. You’re probably wondering when you would ever leave your wine at that temperature for an extended period of time. Probably never, but what about when you deliver your wine to your house in the back of your trunk on a hot day. The temperature inside of trunks can reach well above 115° F. You could spend $600-$800 dollars on wine to have it ruined before you ever take a sip.
What about storing your wine in too cold of a place? This is not nearly as bad as storing it in extreme heat. There is a couple things, though, to keep in mind. One is that wine ages more slowly in cold temperatures. In fact, there is a story of champagne being recovered from the Titanic and still tasting decent. The ocean waters were really cold and that kept the wine from aging too much. In that case, it’s a good thing however it can be a bad thing if you want your wine to age, change and mature over a shorter period of time.
The other major concern about your wine staying cold for too long is regarding the integrity of the cork and bottle. If the temperature is too cold the wine can freeze and expand, which could put pressure on the cork and bottle. This can then lead to air seeping in and ruining your wine as mentioned earlier.
You can tell know if your bottle has cracked, but knowing if you’re cork is damaged is hard to see and knowing if it is seeping air is even harder.
There are other ramifications to cold wine bottles. The bottles often form condensation. The condensation can lead to mold. If that mold gets into your wine – well it won’t taste good.
In general, the ideal temperature range is between 45° F and 65° F (55° F is often thought of as perfect).
By the way, white wines should be served between 45-52° F depending on the variety and reds between 58-65°F.
- No Roller-Coaster Temperatures
You go to Napa and have a great time tasting wine from many of its finest vineyards. The whole time you’re using your sommelier skills to evaluate the very best. You astutely choose your wine and spend a fortune.
As you grab it (stored at winery at the ideal temperature), you take your wine to the trunk, knowing that you can’t keep it stored there for very long. After you’re done with the wineries, you hurry home and put it into your temperature controlled wine refrigerator.
A year later, and several trips to Napa later, you realize you can’t store all your wine in one wine refrigerator so you decide to move it to a cellar—or worse a regular refrigerator you just bought to store wine.
What just happened? The temperature was perfect when it was at the winery, it went up when it went in the trunk, it went back down when it went to the wine refrigerator, and it changed again when it went to another environment. The cork, like wood, expands and contracts this whole time. Do you think that the seal is as good through this process? I think you know the answer to that and by now you know why that’s a bad thing!