How to Store and Age Your Wine
A lot of wine lovers don’t store wines for long, preferring to purchase a bottle shortly before they plan on drinking it. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to build up more of a stock of wine -- perhaps because you live far away from the nearest quality wine shop, or plan on hosting larger events where multiple bottles are being served.
How long can I keep a bottle of wine?
A lot of wines are aged in the bag on the way home from the store -- that is, it’s not necessary to age them any more after purchase, and they probably aren’t going to get any better. If you don’t have a dedicated space for storing your wine, you’ll want to drink it right away. The average home pantry is not climate-controlled, and fluctuations in temperature and light will negatively impact the flavour of any wine. That being said, if they’re stored under the proper conditions, certain wines can be aged for years, or even decades.
If you’re planning on purchasing a wine to commemorate a future special occasion, like the graduation of a child or grandchild, a wedding anniversary, or another milestone, it’s imperative to select a wine that will benefit from the aging process. Both reds and whites can be aged, though red wines are the most common choice for long-term cellar storage.
All wines are aged during the winemaking process -- with reds, the sweet spot is usually 1-2 years of aging before bottling, and many white wines are aged for even less than that. Once a wine is bottled, it’s ready to be drunk, and the majority of wines will only degrade if they’re left in the bottle for much longer after purchase. That said, under the right conditions it is possible to age wine in the bottle -- some wines do get better with age, while others simply don’t degrade much over time. A wine expert will be able to guide you to a wine that will stand the test of time, but in general, reds with a high sugar content and relatively low alcohol by volume are your best bet for aging.
Wine production and storage are centuries-old disciplines and as such, most methods for aging quality wines are tried-and-true. If you store a wine properly, it can last a very long time -- think 20, 30, even 40 years. However, even a good aging wine, stored in anything less than the ideal conditions, will quickly go bad.
How Should I Store my Wine?
Whether you store your wine in a cellar or in a specialized cooler, there are a few rules that must be abided. Oxygen is the enemy of any good wine. Accordingly, wine storage conventions are simply strategies that prevent oxygen from getting into the wine before you’re ready to drink it.
The ideal temperature for storing wine is probably between 10 and 20 degrees celsius. A chilly temperature effectively puts a wine in suspended animation, preventing unwanted loss of flavour and aroma. Ambient temperatures too far below 10 degrees can ruin the wine’s flavour, and of course if the wine freezes, the cork may be forced out of the bottle by the pressure of the expanding ice crystals. Above 20 degrees, and the compounds that lend to the most delicate aspects of a wine’s flavour may evaporate or degrade.
Though the ideal temperature is between 10 and 20 degrees, you don’t want the temperature of your cellar to actually fluctuate a full 10 degrees. Better to pick a specific temperature and ensure that the environment stays as close to it as possible at all times.
Temperature fluctuations can cause the wine to expand and contract slightly. These fluctuations can cause the small amount of air in a wine bottle to form a vacuum that draws oxygen into the bottle through microscopic fissures in the cork. It’s a very small amount of oxygen, but over time it can lead to significant degradation of the flavour and quality of a wine.
Have you ever wondered why most wines are sold in dark green, brown, or even black bottles? Excessive light is another factor that can reduce the lifespan of a wine. Light is particularly detrimental to sparkling wines like champagne, but it isn’t good for any variety.
While tinted bottles (and the foil wraps seen on many modern champagnes) do some of the work to reduce light exposure, wine should ideally be stored in darkness.
The atmosphere of a wine cellar should be slightly moist. Some humidity serves to keep the cork hydrated, which preserves it and stops it from becoming brittle or developing large cracks. A dried-out cork can shrink and start leaking air into the wine, quickly degrading the taste and aroma.
Though cool temperatures are important for storing wine, you should never store wine in the fridge. This has a lot to do with humidity. You’ve probably noticed that food tends to dry out when left in the refrigerator for a while. There’s very little humidity in a refrigerator, which means a wine cork will quickly dry out and begin leaking oxygen into your wine.
Aside from the moisture factor, the fridge isn’t a great place to store wine because it’s frequently opened and closed, which not only affects the consistency of the temperature, but it also introduces light on a regular basis.
Why should wine be stored on its side?
As with all the above techniques, wine is often stored on its side because this is an additional way to keep the cork moist. Some wine experts also believe that storing a wine tilted up at a 45-degree angle is ideal, as it keeps the wine partially in contact with the cork, while allowing the wine to “breathe” through the air bubble in the bottle.
By now you can see that a lot of wine aging techniques are focused around maintaining the integrity of the cork. If the cork begins to dry out or crack, this spells disaster for the wine inside -- no matter how high quality or how long it’s been aged. So it’s important to maintain a cork’s moisture, through ambient humidity, direct contact with the wine, and consistent temperature.
Of course, not every wine comes with a cork. A high-quality wine with a screw top will generally age just as well as the same wine packaged with a corked bottle. Innovations in technology have allowed wineries to develop screw cap bottles that behave similarly to corks, providing a seal but still allowing a tiny amount of air to pass through over the years. Screw tops are a somewhat recent innovation, so there isn’t a lot of research on whether they can keep wine flavours intact for decades the same way corks can.
In general, the type of cellar facility that will produce good wine aging results is not accessible to the average person. Building and maintaining a functional wine cellar requires a lot of space, know-how, and money. Wine aging is best left to the experts.