The process of ageing and storing wine is a form of culinary art, where one walks a fine line between ruining the wine or enhancing it. The pleasure of sharing fine aged wine always makes the wait worthwhile, but if aged under the wrong conditions, your wine will become undrinkable. The main issue is that over time the ethanol in your wine will oxidise and turn into acetic acid, more commonly referred to as vinegar.
Even without this occurring, storing wine in an area that is too hot will speed up the break-down of acidity and tannins, altering flavours to the point where the wine will lose all its charm.
Conversely, the correct storage conditions will slow down oxidation and allow the gentle natural chemical reactions between the wine’s tannins, sugars, acids and ethanol to subtly change the wine over time.
Here are the three main pitfalls when creating the ideal cellar:
The ideal cellaring temperature is between 12°C and 14°C! Temperatures much lower than this (under 10°C) will excessively stunt maturation while those higher than this (above 16°C) will prematurely age the wine – and not in a nice way. Wine stored in temperatures above 20°C will ruin a wine within days and anything near freezing is very bad.
Keeping the ambient temperature relatively stable is also extremely important. Ideally you want to keep the fluctuations under +/-2°C per day.
The humidity of a cellar is best kept between 65% and 75%.
Levels lower than this can cause the corks to dry out and shrink, allowing air into the bottle and causing oxidation.
Environments with a humidity level much greater than 75% will cause labels to peel, cartons to rot and bottles to develop mould. This will usually not affect the wine’s taste if corks are intact are airtight, but will definitely put a dent in potential resale value.
Make it as dark as possible!
Light should be avoided – especially sunlight, as UV light causes hydrogen sulfide compounds in wine and affects the tannins and color of the wine. A wine room certainly should not have any windows, and preferably it should be dark most of the time.
Airflow: Try to avoid air blowing directly onto the bottles but ensure there is appropriate ventilation and air change (to ensure the cellar does not become stale).
Vibrations: These can affect the speed of chemical reactions in wine. This is however a relatively minor consideration for bottles being stored for a short time.
Watertight: Flooded underground cellars are very common.
Pests and Insects: Can easily devastate entire collections.
Security system: This includes for family and friends!
Racking: Ensure all bottles are laid on their side, keeping the corks moist inside with the wine.
Insulation: Gaps in doors and windows need particular attention. A poorly insulated room which heats up in the day and cools down at night will soon spoil any wine.
Keep clean and avoid strong smells: Wine should not be stored where there are chemicals in the air (e.g. next to open paint cans) or strong smells (e.g. in a cheese cellar). Keeping the cellar clean prevents other bad odours and pests from developing.
Central heating: Has been known to ruin many collections.
Cellar records: Keep accurate records of what’s in your cellar.
Insurance: Ensure your home and contents policy covers your wine.
Turning the bottles: An old wives tale! It’s best to leave wine alone. The only wines that need turning are Champagne bottles, but that’s up to the winemaker: after aging and before a cork is inserted, the sediment in the bottle (lees) must be consolidated for removal; the bottles are frequently turned (facing downwards) in order to get the lees to settle in the neck of the bottle before it’s removed.
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