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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Is there a school of thought that sweet wines should be cellared upright, assuming all other cellar conditions are appropriate? I saw old vintages kept in this manner in a winemaker’s underground cellar in Tokaji in Hungary.
—Neil W., Hiroshima, Japan
Most everyone agrees that wines bottled under corks should be stored on their side, which will help the corks from drying out because that will keep some wine in contact with the cork and keep the cork moist, at least on one end. The concern is that a dried-out cork will shrink and let some oxygen in, which can prematurely age the wine.
You are correct that there are cellars in Hungary where Tokaji bottles are stored upright. But these are unique cellars with very high humidity levels, which helps prevent corks from drying out. According to Allison Tonkin and Andras Nemeth of Alana-Tokaj, local cellar mold stabilizes this level of humidity at around 95 percent year-round—they say the mold acts like water-soaked cotton balls on the cellar walls. Even still, bottles of Tokaji standing up in these cellars still often required recorking every few decades or so.
So if you have any bottles of Tokaji at home, and you don't live inside a moldy cellar in Hungary, definitely store them on their side!
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