Properly storing your wine is one of the easiest ways to get the most out of your wine, while improper storage is one of the easiest ways to accidentally spoil a bottle. Whether you have one bottle or one-hundred, there are several easy but important steps to take so that you can enjoy your collection for years to come.
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Although the idea of storing wine can conjure up images of some kind of arcane practice from a gothic novel, with subterranean rooms of cobweb-stranded bottles in racks, you don't have to have a cellar to keep wine. But before we get too deep into how to store wine properly, we need to make a quick distinction between storing wine and aging it:
- Storing wine involves protecting a bottle of wine for a short period before consuming it; usually, wine is only stored for a year or so.
- Aging wine usually involves buying a case of a particular vintage, either as an investment or for personal use, and sampling it over the years to discover its peak flavor and development.
Most wines aren't developed for long-term aging, which can take decades. Many winemakers anticipate that their wines will be enjoyed soon after purchase–especially if you're sampling a new vintage through a wine club–and while it's worthwhile knowing how to store these bottles, many of them are not suitable for aging.
Instead of stockpiling a case (or several) of a single vintage to slowly taste over the years, the goal of wine storage is to preserve the flavor of your wine for the year to three years it was intended to be on the shelf. After all, wine is bottled to be enjoyed!
Storing Red Wines vs Storing White Wines
Due to the chemical composition of different varieties of grapes, red and white wines respond very differently and have different durations of shelf life. This is due to the different properties of the grapes, which inherently possess different sulfur or acidity levels, as well as sugars and tannins.
Wines that are higher in tannin and acidity tend to be better candidates for aging (and thus tend to store better). With a few exceptions, white wines typically don't last as long as red wine and so require cooler temperatures to stabilize the wine during storage.
Maintain a Consistent Temperature
Store white wines at 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit and red wines at 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit. There are different schools of thought on the proper temperature to store wine, however, outside of the difference of a few degrees higher or lower, the important thing to keep in mind is consistency.
Historically, the consistency of below-ground storage is why wine cellars became popular in times before refrigeration. Regardless of the temperature outside, the temperature inside a wine cellar didn’t vary too much from 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fluctuations in temperature can ruin wine, with colder temperatures causing it to fracture, affecting the flavor and texture. Higher temperatures can also have a ruinous effect, essentially cooking your wine and causing it to become jammy or vinegary.
If you don’t have a convenient wine cellar lying around, or a similarly cool (but not cold) place to store your wine, a wine fridge can be a useful addition to your wine storage arsenal. Slightly more convenient than accessing a catacomb, a wine fridge can keep your bottles at a consistent temperature, with some even providing humidity, variable temperature shelves for reds and whites, and even low vibration.
Keep Wine in the Dark
Besides controlling for temperature, cellaring had the added benefit of keeping wine in the dark. Sunlight contains UV radiation, which is extremely damaging. UV light fractures the molecules of wine, especially if the wine is stored in clear bottles (like most white wines).
Being exposed to UV and even incandescent lights affects the chemical structure of wine, releasing sulfur and converting the alcohol into vinegar over time. Additionally, the heat from solar radiation and artificial light can cook wine, and ruin the flavor very quickly. Leaving your bottle of wine in the car on a warm day can make it undrinkable.
Control for Humidity
Most wines are bottled with real cork–the organic bark of the cork tree–and so humidity is crucial in preserving a seal between the cork and the glass. Because it is an organic material, a wooden cork will expand or shrink depending on the humidity level.
A dried-out cork opens enough space for oxygen to enter the bottle, potentially contaminating the wine with wild yeasts and aromas, as well as accelerating oxidation. Since cold air doesn't hold moisture very well, this is why lower temperatures aren't necessarily better. Kitchen refrigerators are much too cold for storing wine, and the process of compression actually dehumidifies the air inside your fridge.
A key point in keeping your cork sufficiently moist enough to maintain that seal is by storing red and white wine horizontally. The wine will continue to seep into the cork and it will stay expanded. Vertical storage allows the cork to dry out.
However, there’s an exception. If you’re storing a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne and plan to drink it within the month, you can store it vertically. The pressure of the carbon dioxide bubbles inside the bottle creates a seal that prevents oxygen from entering through the cork and destabilizing the alcohol molecules. That said, in the long-run, champagne should be stored on its side to prevent the cork from drying out.
Avoid the Kitchen Refrigerator
We have touched upon different reasons why a wine fridge is sufficient when compared to a kitchen fridge. Outside of temperature variation and humidity, there are other things to consider as well.
Your wine will continue to "breathe" as long as it hasn't been opened. Trace amounts of air, as well as particles, carried in the air enter the bottle through the cork in very small portions. Since wine brings in a lot of flavors from the surrounding environment, a dedicated wine fridge at the right temperature and humidity are important.
You might not notice it, but your kitchen fridge is constantly active--great for maintaining a steady, cold temperature, bad for preserving wine. The compressor and motor create a lot of vibration, and the vibration is bad for wine! Even if you are cellaring wine, you need to be aware of any vibrations which might destabilize your wine, causing it to mature too quickly and even go stale.
Maximizing the Taste of Your Wine
There are many opinions as to how long wine lasts after being opened, but in general, it lasts as long as you find it enjoyable! Wine that has gone bad will taste vinegary or sour, or generally unpleasant. The variables that affect exactly when that happens varies by wine, but you should have a few days of happy wine drinking ahead of you with each new bottle.
How long does white/red wine last after being opened?
White wine degrades faster than red and can be kept around for 3-4 days under refrigeration. Red wine can remain at room temperature in a corked bottle for a few days as well. Some gadgets allow you to recork your wine which pumps out excess oxygen and sometimes replace the gap between cork and wine with an inert gas. This simulates the ullage, the layer of CO2 that protects Champagne and sparkling wine during storage. At best, however, this may only extend the shelf life by a few days.
Does this change by cork type?
Cork types can marginally affect the shelf life of wines. Synthetic corks may impart a strange flavor to wine, especially at room temperature or higher. Screw cap wine doesn't require wine to be stored horizontally, and these wines can be very delicious and aren't really intended to be stored for very long anyway. Cheaper corks can dry out quickly and contribute to wine sediment as well as dry out quickly or even oversaturate. Both cases allow contaminants to enter the wine and shorten its shelf-life as well as change its flavor.
Keep the fundamentals in mind
Even if you don't have a wine fridge, there are several easy steps you can take to successfully store your wine and preserve its flavor. Keep your wine stored in a proper position at cool, consistent temperatures, away from light, heat, and vibration. Once you’ve found a spot for it, don't move it until you plan to drink it.
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