The 4 Natural Enemies of Wine in Storage
There are four natural “enemies” of wine in storage, which even the most casual wine drinker should be aware of, when deciding how to store their wine for aging, or just later enjoyment. These enemies, are, roughly in order of the damage they can do: temperature, light, (lack of) humidity, and vibration.
Nearly everyone agrees that temperature has the biggest potential effect on wine in storage. Ideally, wine of any type should be stored at around 55 degrees (F), and the temperature should be stable, throughout each day, and throughout the year.
When wine ages, many complex chemical changes occur, alongside each other and interacting with each other. Each of these reactions occurs at its own rate. As with many chemical reactions, heat accelerates the rates of these reactions. As a result, less than ideal temperatures change the rate at which wine matures.
Consider the beneficial changes – those changes that enhance the wine’s aroma and flavor – the reason we age wine intentionally. When the temperature is warmer than ideal, these changes occur faster than normal. This speeding up of the aging process leads to the wine peaking in quality earlier than expected, and declining thereafter, faster as well. In addition, due to the changing of the rates of the various reactions, the interactions between them may be out of synch as well, upsetting the balance in the wine.
In addition to the effect of the average temperature itself, the temperature fluctuation also needs to be taken into consideration. As the temperature of the bottle (and wine) rises and falls, the cork expands and contracts slightly, loosening over time. The most troublesome fluctuations are those that occur daily – the more often the cork expands and contracts, the more it loosens. This loosening of the cork allows wine to leak out and air to leak in, resulting in oxidation and the unpleasant tastes and aromas that oxidation causes. Temperature fluctuations across the seasons are not nearly as troublesome, however, since they do not occur frequently. However, they should still be kept to a minimum.
So, how much effect does temperature have in the rate of aging of wine? Some experts estimate that raising the storage temperature from an ideal of 55 degrees F to room temperature (around 72 degrees F), increases the aging rate somewhere between 2 and 8 times – likely on the higher end. That translates into a wine stored at room temperature for 3 years aging to a comparable degree to the same wine stored at 55 degrees for between 6 and 24 years. Of course, the effect becomes even more exaggerated at higher temperatures. Storing a bottle of wine in a closed car on a hot day can have a similar effect on the wine to storing it for years; in fact, the wine can become “cooked” in a single afternoon, ruining it completely.
Since the range of the effect of temperature on aging wine is wide and hard to predict, (there’s no way to compare a wine that has been stored ideally for 20 years with another bottle from the same lot that had prematurely aged after, say 3 years), it’s very difficult to determine when a wine has peaked, and declined, and to what extent. Obviously, this can lead to a huge disappointment when the wine is finally consumed.
The second enemy of wine in storage is light exposure. Ultraviolet light can break down some compounds in the wine, producing undesirable off-tastes and odors. Sunlight, and to a lesser extent, fluorescent lights, give off considerable ultraviolet light, so are the most problematic light sources. Incandescent light (from regular light bulbs) are not as much of a problem, but should still be limited whenever possible. Darkness, of course, is the ideal lighting condition for storing wine.
Humidity is a concern due to the fact that low humidity can cause the cork to dry out, leaking out wine and letting in air, which leads to oxidation of the wine. Some evaporation of wine is unavoidable when storing wine very long-term, but maintaining relatively high humidity in the storage area can minimize the problem. Too high humidity can allow mold to grown on the cork and label, but this really a cosmetic issue, rather than a threat to the wine itself.
Finally, vibration is often cited as a concern when cellaring wine, since it can cause sedimentation on the bottom of the bottle to circulate, reacting with the wine, and producing off-flavors. Although vibration is the least problematic of the four factors, it should still be minimized whenever possible.
To recap, it’s best to store your precious wine in a cool, dark, humid place, where it won’t be jostled. Of course, one of the best places to store wine is where it has been stored over the ages – in a cave or cellar. A basement can serve well as a cellar, if it is consistently cool, dark, and humid. If you don’t have a true cellar or adequate basement, you may want to consider investing in a wine cooler – a special refrigerator for storing wines – preferably one with either dark glass or no glass at all, and reliable and consistent temperature and humidity controls. That way, your wine will be at its peak you’re ready to enjoy it.