The Grape & The Cellar
We all love a nice glass of wine, whether that being a Sauvignon Blanc on a warm summer’s day or a Merlot around a warm fire on a cold winter’s day. However, it’s not often that we think about how the wine we are drinking has been produced or, even more rarely, how it’s been conserved after production.
In fact, most wines are stored for a period between few months and few years, depending on the type of wine: this means storage is still a key part of winemaking and absolutely critical to the development of the wine.
And actually, when we open a fine wine, the depth of flavours and smells we expect are primarily developed throughout the storage period.
We have spoken with Callum Dooley from Elite Wine Refrigeration, a UK company specialised in luxury and premium wine coolers, to help us identify some of the key storage conditions needed to help developing wines throughout the ageing period. Callum has a wealth of knowledge on wine storage, so we thought it was nice to share with our readers and clients what the industry experts had to say.
We started our chat about the storage periods we can expect from different types of wine: each grape has different needs and requirements and, although storing wines is generally indicated, Callum recommends to be careful and not to age it for too long.
Generally, most white wines are suitable for storage of between 1 and 2 years: they will have already been aged for this period with the manufacturer, but – due to their acidity – they don’t actually need to be stored for much longer so we will focus on red wines.
Red Wines That Don’t Require Ageing
Wines that don’t require ageing are generally low in tannin, made from grapes such as Gamay, Lambrusco and Dolcetto. They tend to expire within a few years, so they won’t really benefit from any kind of storage.
Due to the low tannin content, there generally won’t be a particular depth of flavours or complexity, but the singular flavours usually feel very bold on the palate.
Wines Suitable for 4-5 Years Storing
For wines that will be consumed within 4 – 5 years, we are looking at types of wine with a moderate tannin content that do not break down as quickly. Pinot Noir from Burgundy can be a good example of this type of wines: they are generally very hardy and will easily last this long without any degradation.
Callum explained to us that any light red wine should be suitable for storage for this period as long as they have a moderate tannin content, complex flavours and a high acidity level. Among other grape varieties, we can mention Garnacha and Zinfandel.
Wines Suitable for 10-20 Years Storage
For the neophytes that have just started building their wine collection, it would be best to focus on some of the hardier, bolder reds such as Merlot and Malbec as they have a high tannin content. These wines are typical from Bordeaux and California and Argentina respectively. They can be a great starting point for a collection, but it would be important to look closer at the production methods as this can determine the quality of the wine and therefore how long it is suitable to be stored for.
Old World red wines are ideal for this length of storage as they usually have a complex flavour, however New World producers – especially in the fine wine segment – adopted very similar winemaking techniques and require very similar storage conditions. Generally, complex wines are produced in cooler conditions, with wineries focusing on more subtle flavours that will be released after the wine has aged for 10 years or more.
It is a very complex palette we expect across different grapes and different wine regions, particularly Bordeaux and Argentina as we mentioned, but also some very high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Burgundy and the most prestigious SuperTuscans.
Above 20 Years of Storage
Wine suitable for this storage time are generally very high-end wines. Their high quality and the winemaking behind usually gives them subtle flavours, which gradually develop over many years and may only be able to be tasted after 15 or 20 years of resting in a cellar.
These are wines needing high, structured tannins, sharp acidity and strong fruit flavours to be able to survive the long period of storage. As a wine ages, it will lose some of the freshness and the fruity flavours will become more earthy and smooth. Some ideal wines for this length of storage are Barolos and Barbaresco from Piedmont, several grapes from Bordeaux and the Italian Amarone. Some of them can last up to 50 years, when the tight tannins begin to soften and the acidity becomes less so prominent.
After understanding the different storage periods, Callum moved on to the correct storage conditions: temperature, light, humidity, vibrations and odours.
When storing wines in a traditional underground wine cellar, the environment should usually be around 12°C all year round. The walls both offer insulation throughout the winter and help keeping the wine cool during the summer time. At 12°C, the wine develops at a consistent and stable rate, ideal to allow the flavours and notes to develop.
Most new collectors interpret serving temperatures as storage temperatures: this is not strictly correct and storing your wines at temperatures that are too cool or too high will actually end up damaging the wine.
The serving temperature of a red wine might vary between 14-20°C: if you store at that temperature, the chemical reactions that occur naturally in the wine will double per each 10 degrees increase in the overall temperature. This means the ageing process is actually rushed and the flavours we expect to develop after 10-15 years’ worth of storage simply won’t be there, as the increased temperature has resulted in a poor yield in flavours.
If we store our wine at lower temperatures, the ageing process will effectively switch off: the lower temperatures will reduce the amount of kinetic energy the compounds have, which limits the chance of the collisions occurring. And if the chemicals don’t react together, there will be no development in the wine. This is why Callum recommends using a temperature-controlled wine cellar or – in the absence of that sort of space – a wine cooler to maintain the ambient temperature correctly.
It’s also important for the temperature to be consistent: if your wines are stored under the stairs on a wine rack, the chances are they will see a change in temperature of about 5°C or more throughout the day. The ageing process is not like a switch, it can’t just be turned on or off. Wine needs a period of stability in order for the reactions to occur.
Make sure your wine is not overly exposed to too much UV light. Wines are best to be stored in a dark, cool and dry place. Light can cause no end of damage to wine and although the glass bottle protects the wine, excess UV light can also cause other forms of damage.
You might have seen a bottle of wine on display in the window of a wine merchant or a restaurant… Callum confirmed with us this is very often a really bad practice: too much sunlight exposure can lead the wine to lose its red colour.
Furthermore, too much UV light exposure can effect taste as well, as it impacts on the natural reactions occurring inside the bottle. And with UV light also comes warmer temperatures, raising the internal temperature of the bottle, ultimately speeding up the ageing pace of the wine.
For anyone willing to improve their storing and with limited space, a wine cooler is definitely a good investment option. Wine coolers tend to come in two different forms for UV light protection: a full solid door which completely removes any risk, or a UV protected glass door.
The correct levels of humidity ensures the cork is kept and preserved in the best condition possible, hence avoiding the wine inside the bottle to get tampered. Storing a wine bottle on its side will prevent the cork safe from deterioration. And a higher level of humidity is necessary to prevent the cork from drying out. For example, a dry cork might allow oxygen entering the bottle, causing the bottle to leak.
Within a traditional wine cellar environment, the humidity is typically 65-85%.
Likewise, should the humidity be too high – usually from storing in poor environments such as uninsulated garage or storage room – there are higher chances of mould to grow. Not ideal, especially if you you bought wines for investment.
When it comes to wine, vibrations can lead to dulling the flavours. When a wine bottle is being stored in a cellar environment, the wine is largely kept still. This is due to the fact that any vibrations can prove somewhat disruptive within the wine ageing process, as this also causes the wine itself to separate into layers.
Vibrations will also disturb the sediment, causing complex chemical reactions. The older the age of the bottle of wine, the more sensitive it becomes to vibrations.
It’s worth acknowledging that a standard kitchen fridge won’t store your wine in the ideal manner, as it is a great deal more likely to experience vibrations with the likelihood of the wines being moved about from time to time.
Odours also need to be considered when it comes to wine storage. Although a wine bottle is sealed, this is what can – and often will – sour the wine and make it undrinkable. When you smell a wine, this gives you a clear idea of what you’re about to taste. Our sense of smell is key in to how to process the flavour, as we also mentioned in this blog post about food pairing.
Most storage cabinets generally come built and equipped with charcoal filters to help purify the air the wine is stored within .
It’s also best practice not to continually open and close the door, as this could have an adverse effect on the temperature to which your wine is being cooled, overall. And it’s recommended to check on your wines once in a while: failure to control temperature and humidity is one of the ways odours can lead to mould building up.
Our conversation with Callum strengthen our views on how wine storage is extremely important for the wine development itself, particularly with high quality wines that are designed to be stored for 10 years or more. The way winemaker produce the wine are instrumental for the flavours to gradually be released over many years and often are not there when the wines are bottled and released.
If wine is not stored correctly then it simply won’t reach its full potential.
And there is nothing like the anti-climax of storing a wine for a very long time only to find it tastes the same as if it had just been produced.