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

Will my wines get too cold in the garage?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny covers the pitfalls of storing wine in the garage, …

Jan 11, 2021

Dr. Vinny's 25 Top Answers to 'What's the Difference Between …?'

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers disambiguations for wine topics far and wide.

Jan 4, 2021

Dr. Vinny's Most Interesting Questions of 2020

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, revisits the most thoughtful questions …

Dec 31, 2020

Dr. Vinny Answers Your Pandemic Questions (About Wine)

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, revisits all your questions about wine …

Dec 28, 2020

Why is the name “Sauvignon” attached to both red Cabernet Sauvignon and white Sauvignon Blanc?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the relationship between Cabernet Sauvignon and …

Dec 21, 2020

Is it true that wines only improve for about five years after bottling?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains that improvement and ageability are a matter of …

Dec 14, 2020