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

What's the best way to warm up a cold glass of wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers tips for warming up a glass of wine.

Jan 20, 2020

What is a "grower" Champagne?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains what a récoltant-manipulant is, and what makes …

Jan 17, 2020

How do you identify flavors in wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how.

Jan 15, 2020

How long does an open bottle of red wine keep?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains oxidation, and how to delay it.

Jan 13, 2020

Is there glycerol in wine?

Wine Spectator 's expert Dr. Vinny explains what glycerol is and how it's beneficial to …

Jan 10, 2020

After using a Coravin, should a wine bottle still be stored on its side?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains that basic storage rules still apply when using …

Jan 8, 2020




Restaurant Search

Restaurant Search