Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
A client has been giving me bottles of wine as gifts for the past 20 years. Instead of opening and enjoying them as I should have, I’ve been storing them in my basement. I finally started opening some of them, including a 1996 Barolo and a 1989 Burgundy. They were awful. Now that I actually want to drink the wines, I’m worried that my moldy basement has destroyed them. I just got a humidifier. What do you think?
—Jingo, Greensboro, N.C.
Let me clear up a few things. First, if your wines have gone bad due to improper storage, buying a humidifier (or a dehumidifier if it's moldy) isn’t going to improve them. Once a wine is damaged, there’s no way to save it.
Proper wine storage conditions include bottles stored on their sides at an ideal temperature of about 55° F, with little to no exposure to light or vibration and relative humidity around 70 percent. Humidity isn’t all that important, however: If the bottles are properly stored on their sides, with the wine in contact with the cork, that should prevent the cork from drying out, and if the room is too humid, the worst-case scenario is that some mold may appear on the outside of the bottle, but that has no impact on the quality of the wine inside the bottle.
As for your predicament, two likely possibilities jump to mind. First, these long-forgotten bottles of wine may just be ruined, either because they were stored standing up and the corks dried out, or because changes in temperature in your basement damaged the wines. Does it ever get really warm in your basement during the summer? Or really cold at winter? If so, that’s the likeliest culprit. If a bottle of wine gets too warm it can become “cooked,” and possibly even leak. But there’s no way to know if the wine inside is damaged until you open it up and taste it, and it’s entirely possible that some wines would be fine and others … not so fine.
But it’s also possible that the wines taste exactly as they “should,” and that they are not to your liking. It doesn’t sound like you make a habit of cellaring wine, and wines that are 20 or 30 years old taste very different from recently released wines. Even wines like Barolos and Burgundies, which have a reputation for aging, will taste fresher and more robust upon release, with more fruit flavors. They evolve into earthy, more subtle notes of spice and dried flowers when they get to be that age.
I suggest you find some excuses to open the rest of the wines—there’s a chance that you’ll find some wines that either aged well or are more to your liking. And maybe you can be an inspiration to someone else reading about this scenario and thinking about what their own expectations are for those bottles in the basement.