If you haven’t tasted bad wine, you haven’t lived to appreciate the good stuff. Like gulping spoiled milk — especially right out of the jug — you know turned wine when you experience it. Wine that has been badly stored (or “cooked” in industry parlance), tastes flat and musty, not grapey. It’s not performing the way the winemaker intended, so it behooves us to pay homage to his/her efforts and try to maintain its freshness. Not to mention preserve the investment in the product. Maybe you received a few bottles over the holidays that you’d like to save for a while — for that special occasion? Maybe a friend boastfully spent beaucoup bucks for a gift and you’re worried about holding it until you find the right time to drink it? No worries, since there are ways to save that bottle from destruction, without spending extra cash on a fancy wine fridge.
And just to clear something up — 95-98 percent of all wine is meant to be consumed within the first year after bottling. Not all wine should age, especially that $8 Australian Shiraz with the furry-creature label. If you have four or five bottles like this sitting on the kitchen counter, don’t worry about storage unless the rack is near a heater or a window with bright sun — two elements which torture juice quickly. Just get thirsty and invite some friends over. But if you’re unintentionally morphing into a “collector” with over 50 bottles, you need to consider stabilizing them until you can get to partying, whether it’s two or 20 years later.
There are five basic conditions that affect wine in storage: temperature, light, humidity, jostling and bottle angle. Rapid temperature fluctuations — not the indoor 10-degree transition between summer and winter, but from a refrigerator to a hot car for an extended period — are the most damaging to flavor. In fact, two hours in a hot car can destroy wine, but it can also slowly deteriorate if kept at 80 degrees on a daily basis. The sweet spot lies in the 50 to 55 degrees-Fahrenheit area, but 74 degrees year round won’t disappointed. Under a bed or in a closet works just fine. (I use a wine fridge for my “beloved” bottles.) Clear bottles fall prey to searing sunlight, which can also rob the wine of its character.
Humidity only affects wines with corks, which can shrivel in the bottle’s neck and allow oxygen to enter. To avoid this wine-killing element, keep humidity in the 70-percent range if possible. Most air conditioners achieve this level for you, but standard refrigerators are not optimal since the humidity is normally too high (causing cork to mold), the temperature too low and the motor activity too shaky. Wine prefers calmness, like most humans, so storing bottles next to the stereo speakers might also be something to avoid.
Bottle angle — storing wine horizontally — keeps the cork moist so it doesn’t dry up. To avoid this issue completely, buy wines sealed with a screwtop, a superior closure for most everyday wines and even some destined for aging. Read my rather controversial article on screwcap vs. cork.
Wine snobbery aside, the ideal storing system is a refrigerator made especially for wine, which maintains the bottles at an optimal 55 degrees/70 percent humidity. I bought my 48-bottle cooler — which I’ve tragically outgrown — at Sam’s Club. They run anywhere from $100 to $600, varying by how many bottles they hold. Avanti is the brand I own, which has lasted 10 years and counting. ( $116 on Amazon).
Yes, wine is a fickle, moody product that hates being neglected. You might even call it a pain in the ass. But when you’re ready to crack the seal on that autographed, special-occasion bottle, you’ll be rewarded for your anal-retentive efforts.