Which is better to control cellar temperature—measuring air temperature or liquid temperature?

Ask Dr Vinny

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,

Which is better to control cellar temperature—measuring air temperature or liquid temperature?

—Brian, Castle Rock, Colo.

Dear Brian,

The temperature of the air inside a cellar or cooling unit and the temperature of the liquid inside the bottle are not necessarily the same thing. Some wine-cooling units are controlled by the ambient air temperature; others rely on the temperature inside the bottle with the use of a bottle probe, a device inserted into a wine bottle filled with water in your cellar.

Why does it matter? Quite simply, the air temperature can fluctuate quite a bit while the liquid temperature will vary much less. Not to get too science-y, but liquids have a thermal mass inertia that is insulated by the bottle. Air temperature changes much faster because air is lighter and more sensitive to changes.

The concern about bottle probes is that because liquid will change much more slowly, by the time the measured temperature gets warm enough to trigger cooling, it might be too late, or at least it will take much longer for the temps to get back to ideal. But at least you know what temperature is inside the bottle, as opposed to just the air around it. Most coolers that are regulated by air temperature allow for a handful of degrees of fluctuation around the target temperature.

I think both do the job. I see most units are air-measured, which is just fine. Years ago, I also fashioned a bottle probe inside an air-temperature cellar. I took a bottle of wine that I filled with water, put a cork in it and stuck a probe thermometer through that. There was nothing fascinating to observe—the temperature inside the bottle was stable.

There are also a couple of other gadgets to help you measure a wine’s temperature. For a few bucks, there are flexible, bracelet-like cuffs that wrap around a bottle and, assuming they're in contact with a bottle (trickier for some bottle shapes), will give you the temperature of the outside glass of the bottle, which should be reflective of what’s inside. For a few dollars more, you can get an infrared thermometer that you just point at a bottle of wine and get the temperature of what’s inside without any contact.

—Dr. Vinny

Ask Dr. Vinny Cellars Storage

More In Dr. Vinny

I tried to clean a red wine stain and it turned blue. Why?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why wine stains can turn blue, and how best to …

Aug 5, 2020

How does Wine Spectator review canned wines in blind tastings?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the procedure for blind-tasting wines from …

Aug 3, 2020

When will wine from Virginia get the recognition it deserves?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why Virginia's wines aren't more well-known on …

Jul 31, 2020

Why do Champagne bubbles come from the bottom of my glass?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains carbon dioxide "nucleation sites."

Jul 29, 2020

What's the best way to keep a bottle of wine chilled while traveling?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers tips for keeping your wine cool once it's left the …

Jul 27, 2020

Can I make wine from raisins?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why dried-out grapes can make for some pretty …

Jul 24, 2020