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How to Store Wine 101: 7 Basics You Need to Know

Tips on keeping your fine wines at their best without spending a lot

Posted: August 24, 2011

Wine Spectator Staff

So you bought some wine that you’re not planning on drinking right away. Now what do you do with it?

First off, it’s useful to remember that only a small percentage of fine wines on the market benefit from long-term aging. Most wines are best enjoyed within a few years of release. If you’re looking to buy wines to mature, you should really consider investing in professional-grade storage—a totally different ballgame

For everyone else, however, following a few simple guidelines should keep your wines safe until you’re ready to drink them.

1. Keep It Cool

Heat is enemy number one for wine. Temperatures higher than 70° F will age a wine more quickly than is usually desirable. And if it gets too much hotter, your wine may get “cooked,” resulting in flat aromas and flavors. The ideal temperature range is between 45° F and 65° F (and 55° F is often cited as close to perfect), though this isn’t an exact science. Don’t fret too much if your storage runs a couple degrees warmer, as long as you’re opening the bottles within a few years from their release.

2. But Not Too Cool

Keeping wines in your household refrigerator is fine for up to a couple months, but it’s not a good bet for the longer term. The average fridge temp falls well below 45° F to safely store perishable foods, and the lack of moisture could eventually dry out corks, which might allow air to seep into the bottles and damage the wine. Also, don’t keep your wine somewhere it could freeze (an unheated garage in winter, forgotten for hours in the freezer). If the liquid starts turning to ice, it could expand enough to push the cork out.

3. Steady as She Goes

More important than worrying about achieving a perfect 55°F is avoiding the landmines of rapid, extreme or frequent temperature swings. On top of cooked flavors, the expansion and contraction of the liquid inside the bottle might push the cork out or cause seepage. Aim for consistency, but don’t get paranoid about minor temperature fluctuations; wines may see worse in transit from the winery to the store. (Even if heat has caused wine to seep out past the cork, that doesn’t always mean the wine is ruined. There’s no way to know until you open it—it could still be delicious.)

4. Turn the Lights Off

Light, especially sunlight, can pose a potential problem for long-term storage. The sun’s UV rays can degrade and prematurely age wine. One of the reasons why vintners use colored glass bottles? They’re like sunglasses for wine. Light from household bulbs probably won’t damage the wine itself, but can fade your labels in the long run. Incandescent bulbs may be a bit safer than fluorescent bulbs, which do emit very small amounts of ultraviolet light.

5. Don’t Sweat the Humidity

Conventional wisdom says that wines should be stored at an ideal humidity level of 70 percent. The theory goes that dry air will dry out the corks, which would let air into the bottle and spoil the wine. Yes, this does happen, but unless you live in a desert or in arctic conditions, it probably won’t happen to you. (Or if you’re laying down bottles for 10 or more years, but then we’re back to the matter of professional storage.) Anywhere between 50 percent and 80 percent humidity is considered safe, and placing a pan of water in your storage area can improve conditions. Conversely, extremely damp conditions can promote mold. This won’t affect a properly sealed wine, but can damage the labels. A dehumidifier can fix that.

6. See Things Sideways

Traditionally, bottles have been stored on their sides in order to keep the liquid up against the cork, which theoretically should keep the cork from drying out. If you’re planning on drinking these bottles in the near- to mid-term, or if the bottles have alternative closures (screw caps, glass or plastic corks), this is not necessary. We will say this, however: Horizontal racking is a space-efficient way to store your bottles, and it definitely can’t harm your wines.

7. Not a Whole Lot of Shaking

There are theories that vibration could damage wine in the long term by speeding up the chemical reactions in the liquid. Some serious collectors fret about even the subtle vibrations caused by electronic appliances, though there’s little evidence documenting the impacts of this. Significant vibrations could possibly disturb the sediment in older wines and keep them from settling, potentially making them unpleasantly gritty. Unless you live above a train station or are hosting rock concerts, is this likely to be a problem for your short-term storage? No. (But don’t go shaking your wines like a Super Bowl MVP about to spray a bottle of Champagne around the locker room.)

So Where Should I Keep My Bottles?

If you haven’t been blessed with a cool, not-too-damp basement that can double as a cellar, you can improvise with some simple racks in a safe place. Rule out your kitchen, laundry room or boiler room, where hot temperatures could affect your wines, and look for a location not directly in line with light pouring in from a window. You could also buy a small wine cooler and follow the same guidelines: If you keep your wine fridge in a cool place, it won’t have to work so hard, keeping your energy bill down.

Perhaps there is a little-used closet or other vacant storage area that could be repurposed for storing wine? If you have a suitable dark, stable space that’s not too damp or dry, but it is too warm, you might consider investing in a standalone cooling unit specifically designed for wine. There are some inexpensive systems for small spaces, but in most cases, this is getting into professional wine storage.

When is it time to upgrade your storage conditions? Ask yourself this: How much did you spend last year on your wine habit? If a $1,000 cooling unit represents less than 25 percent of your annual wine-buying budget, it’s time to think about it more carefully. Might as well protect your investment.

One other piece of advice from collectors: Whatever number you’re thinking of when it comes to bottle capacity, double it. Once you’ve started accumulating wines to drink later, it’s hard to stop.

Read more: Constructing a Cellar provides details on professional wine storage, including cooling units, insulation and more.


If I Want to Buy a Wine Cooler, What Should I Look For?

Wine coolers are, at their most basic, standalone units designed to maintain a consistent temperature—sometimes one suitable for serving rather than long-term storage—whereas a wine cellar is a cabinet or an entire room that stores wine in optimal conditions for long-term aging: a consistent temperature (about 55° F), with humidity control and some way to keep the wine away from light and vibration.

Units vary in how much access you’ll have to your bottles, so consider both how well you’ll be able to see what’s inside, and how easy it will be to grab a bottle when you want it. Are the bottles stacked? Are there shelves that slide out? Consider the size and shape of the bottles you collect, and the way the bottles fit into the racks—are they very wide, tall or unusually shaped, if they’ll even fit at all?

The door itself is something to ponder. Is it more important for you to see the bottles or protect them from light? Is the glass clear, tempered, tinted, double-paned or UV-resistant? Make sure the door opens on the correct side for where you’re placing it—not every unit has reversible doors. Some models have locks or even alarms.

More expensive units may have multiple temperature zones, which is a nice feature if you want to keep your reds at one temperature and your whites at a cooler, more ready-to-drink temperature. Humidity controls are also helpful. Do your best to find a unit that is quiet—you’d be surprised just how loud the things can get. The more you spend, the better the materials should be, such as aluminum shelves that will conduct cool temperatures better than plastic ones, or a rough interior that will be better for humidity than a smooth one.

Mr Chuck Atteberry
Cypress,TX —  August 24, 2011 5:55pm ET
I purchased a Danby Siloutte 72 bottle wine cooler 4 years ago.
It is in the utility room of my air-conditioned home, before I loaded the cooler, I brought it to an auto tinter an had the darkest tint added to the door. This unit has performed perfect since the day it was purchased. The temp is set to 55F and I have no trouble with the cooler operating in that range even in our record setting temps this summer.
I have a number of wines in the cooler that have a few years to run, and have consumed a few that were in the cooler for 3+ years that were excellent.
Most of the wines, red, white, and sparkling are stored in the cooler for general consumption ie. 1 week to 2 months
I wouldn't part with my cooler, that is until I find a space to put in a larger one
John Padgett
Melbourne Fla —  August 25, 2011 3:28am ET
How about an un-biased ,not worried about future advertising,consumer report on wine coolers with ratings.You could do a Classic,Outstanding,Very good,etc. on all major categories.Best values,Smart buys,Highly recommended.Maybe up to 6 different size ranges.

I've already been burned and would appreciate the help.

Thanks,
JP
Steve Walker
Raleigh, NC —  August 25, 2011 11:23am ET
I agree with John, above. I'd love to have some good guidance, just as he's described it.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  August 25, 2011 10:12pm ET
Beware compact wine coolers! Didn't take long to realize when shopping last year that snazzy models that say they can hold more bottles than the competition at a similar size are simply referring to generic bordeaux bottles. The one I finally settled on has a section that can accommodate magnums and all sorts of flared bottles (pinots, chards, syrahs)
Leslie D Matheson
Vancouver, BC —  August 30, 2011 2:20pm ET
I would also love an independant, consumer reportish, look at wine coolers. It is difficult to find something for a condo that is reasonably priced and good for my small but expanding collection.

Cheers
Leslie
Sheila Ryan
Minneapolis, MN, USA —  August 30, 2011 3:14pm ET
I really like the wine storage/tasting table in the photo - is there a link for that?
Dr Bruce E Kovacs
Forest Hill, MD, USA —  August 30, 2011 4:18pm ET
Buy a wine cooler knowing that because bottle sizes vary so much, it is not possible to store as many bottles as advertised. Two-thirds the number advertised is more realistic and, at that, only after you remove one or more shelves..
John Padgett
Melbourne Fla —  August 30, 2011 5:51pm ET

Wine Spectator Staff,

From reading comments on many subjects it's quite apparent that most of us trust you and value your opinions.There is the "Gang of Ten" who know more than you but I believe deep down they trust you also.So how about a go at it.I may never get the corkage thing down in a small town but at least when I bring Mama Rizzoli's baked pasta pie home,I can have a properly stored Brunello waiting on it and I will be drinking it out of the glass that JL said he uses on all his red's.Great glass @ $10.
In the grand scheme of things this may not be as big as "What am I drinking " or "Name that wine" but you may actually put a increase in the wine cooler/cellar business this fall.Presently I have 3 mailing lists to respond to this week so any help or direction will be appreciated.
JP
Luc Naud
Quebec City —  August 30, 2011 7:31pm ET
Thanks for the 7 Basics.

What would you suggest for Champagne cellaring : standing up or laying down?

Thanks,

Luc
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  August 30, 2011 7:40pm ET
Luc,

Laying sparkling wines on their sides isn't necessary, since the pressure inside the bottle keeps the cork moist. However, most sparkling wine producers recommend storing bottles on their side since there are no particular advantages to storing bottles neck up.

Dana Nigro, managing editor, WineSpectator.com
Curt Lommen
Rochester Hills, MI —  December 4, 2011 10:43pm ET
What temp would you most likely recommend for my high end Champagne, keep in mind a couple of these will likely be held for 10 years or so give or take.
Larry Keller
Fairhope, AL —  July 2, 2012 8:07pm ET
With the advent of better wines using screw tops instead of corks, wouldn't it be advisable to store reds that tend to throw solids in a vertical position so that decanting is easier?
Bonnie Katz
st louis, Mo  —  November 6, 2012 8:36am ET
Should the wine bottles be stored with the cork facing out or the bottom of the bottle facing out? Or is it just a matter of preference? My husband and I disagree. In our racking system, the bottles lay flat.
John Deluca
Montreal, Quebec, canada —  November 6, 2012 11:08am ET
I recently converted and interior single closet into a wine storage unit that will hold a max of 240 bottles. It is an interior wall closet. I insulated all surfaces with R10 foam. I made and installed shelves, 8" wide with bottle spacers 3" apart: One shelf in front of the other with a space for air circulation. I keep a pan of water on the top shelf. Temperature is maintaining a steady 60 degrees and this is with the heat on in the house fort he last couple weeks. Cost to make it was about $250.00.
Hal Heinrich
Calgary, Alberta, Canada —  November 6, 2012 7:20pm ET
What about LED lighting? How does it compare to Fluorescent and Incandescent for use in a wine cellar?
William Julio
Boston, Massachusetts —  November 7, 2012 9:59pm ET
In addition to being an avid Wine Spectator fan and fledgling collector, I happen to be in energy conservation and have extensive experience in lighting retrofits. I can tell you that LED lighting produces a good 8 times the light output per Watt as compared to incandescent and even up to twice better than compact fluorescent. What this efficiency means with respect to your wine storage is that more energy is converted to light rather than heat.
...that said, unless you spend an inordinately long time in your wine storage area inspecting, organizing or just plain visiting with your wine, you won't notice it at the meter.
I'd recommend designing your lighting according to the amount of light output you need and spatial considerations rather than being tied down to any one technology. Just keep in mind that if this means compact fluorescent lamps are right for you, most take time to "warm up" and attain full brightness, so trade up on the wattage to get sufficient output for quick on/off cycles likely to be the case with your wine storage.
I personally have a 2-lamp, 4-foot F32T8 fluorescent fixture (with highly mirrored reflector and 28-Watt lamps) located 18" in front of and 18" above the center of my 6' of wine racks. I wired it into the lighting circuit that goes on when I flip the switch in my basement stairway. At 56 Watts it lights my wine like Fenway Park! (...and yes, I do tend to "visit" with my wine now and again)
Lou Giusto
Charleston SC —  November 15, 2012 4:30pm ET
My advise is if you have a nice collection store it professionally with a local fine wine storage company. Keep enough on hand for your daily needs , keep the special/investment inventory in a secure wine storage facility.
Brian Wilson
Boston, MA —  March 14, 2013 11:15am ET
55 Degrees is the industry standard. I agree with the LED lighting, we use it exclusively unless customer, architect/designer prefers otherwise.
As a professional wine cellar designer/builder of over 300 wine cellars, from fancy to basic, in New England, the East Coast, and Europe for 18 years, I can assure you that wine cellars built by amatuers or inexperienced builders can cause lots of problems, some minor, some disastrous. A good part of my business is remedial/rebuilding of some else's mistakes. Usually involving inadequate or out of control temperature control systems, leaking water, mold formation, condensation. I'm happy to answer questions here or by email. brainwilson@bostonwinecellars.com

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