Ideally, wine should be kept in a cool, clean, dark, moderately humid space. Ventilation and a constant temperature are a must, and a stable, vibration-free atmosphere is desirable. Bottles should always be stored lying down to keep the cork moist and prevent oxidization from exposure to air.
Several sources say keeping your wine at around 55 degrees with approximately 70 percent humidity is ideal. Too much warmth will age the wine prematurely, but too much cold can suspend the wine's growth process and cause it to develop deposits.
Yet, many casual wine drinkers think nothing of storing a few bottles on their basement floor or in their pantry, right side up, perhaps being exposed to fluctuating temperatures and beams of sunlight. This may suffice for the occasional wine drinker, but if you thrive on wine and often buy in large quantities, a proper storing unit is a necessity.
I truly love the very essence of wine and everything about it. That's a step up from frequenting your local wine shop every time you need a dinner wine, but it isn't exactly easy access. Almost everyone is impressed when they learn that the wine cellar of Paris' "Tour d'Argent" restaurant has a stock of 400,000 bottles and that of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo has more than 600,000. Although few wine lovers, restaurateurs or hoteliers even dream of such cellars, more and more people are realizing that there are many advantages to having their own private wine cellar.
Most people who enjoy drinking wine realize that wines, including most whites and rose wines and those light red wines that can be compared to Beaujolais are meant to be drunk when quite young. The charm of such wines lies in their youth and lightness, and storing such wines for too long spoils their simplicity and fruitiness. The wines that benefit from proper storage are sweet or very concentrated, intensely flavored whites and those reds made by spending a long time in contact with the skins of the grapes to take up the pigments and tannins as preservatives. This list includes, of course, about 95% of the world's best wines.
Among the advantages of maintaining a wine cellar, either in one's home or restaurant are the obvious fact that it gives one a better choice of wines to suit different occasions; lets us drink fine mature wines without having to hunt for them; allows us to take advantage of sales and to buy in bulk (buying entire cases is almost always less expensive); and lets us plan a broad assortment of wines that can be purchased at one's leisure. Another not insignificant advantage is that having one's own cellar allows one to buy wines while they are still young, that it so say, before they become astronomically expensive. Keeping one's own cellar also assures that the wines will be stored correctly, and not carelessly where they might spoil in their bottles as they do in many stores or warehouses. Even though most individuals and restaurants will keep wine primarily for their own purposes (for serving or as gifts), others will find that classic wines appreciate in value and that when bought wisely and stored well, fine wine can be a good investment.
Many of those in the United States who want to develop personal or professional wine cellars have an easy job of it. The weather is ideal enough that they can simply store their wines in a cool place, sometimes in their basements or even in a closet located on an exterior wall of the building. I even know Englishmen and Frenchmen who keep their wines perfectly well in a closet under a staircase. In many places, however, the weather simply does not allow for such convenience. The situation is far from hopeless, and regardless of whether your home is in the desserts of Nevada, the humid heat of Louisiana.
The conditions needed for ideal wine storage are darkness, freedom from vibration, fairly high humidity and, most critically of all, a reasonably even temperature. Darkness is needed because natural ultraviolet light and bright artificial light penetrates even dark green glass bottles and hastens premature aging. Even though normal household vibration will not harm even the finest wines, exaggerated vibration prevents the normal sediment in an aging wine to settle; and humidity helps the corks stay airtight. All of these however are secondary to the temperature at which wine is stored.
Wines hate being subjected to extremes of heat or cold or to wide temperature variation. More than anything, they react badly to high temperatures. Considering that gradual rises and falls in temperature will not matter much, all wines should be stored at a steady temperature of between 8 and 15 degrees Celsius (46 - 59 degrees Fahrenheit). Even though nearly everyone agrees that wines in a cold cellar will mature more slowly and keep longer than wines in a relatively warm one, not all agree on this precise temperature range and several world famous restaurants keep their wines at a permanent 18 degrees Celsius. Although red wines can be stored at as much as 20 degrees Celsius for several months without fear of damage, they will age more rapidly and this temperature is far from ideal. My own ideal is 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), because I consider this ideal for aging red wines. It also has the advantage of leaving the white wines in the cellar at or nearly at their perfect serving temperature.
Planning a Wine Cellar
So long as space is physically available, the construction of a wine cellar in one's home or apartment is not as expensive or difficult as it might seem. A physical space of 2.5 x 3 meters with a ceiling height of 2.5 meters, for example, is quite enough to store up to 2,250 bottles of wine.
When planning, remember that as important as insulation is, a reliable air conditioning system is even more important. Insulation can be fickle, for even though it protects our wines against rapid changes in temperature it does not provide absolute protection. Just as an insulated room will keep cold bottles colder longer, it will also keep bottles warmer longer once they have risen in temperature. During a 4 day heat wave with temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), for example, if the air conditioning is not working the temperature in a well-insulated room in easily rise to the temperature of the exterior and, unless a back-up air conditioner is available, this will damage almost every bottle of wine in your cellar. The possibility of the concurrence of a prolonged heat wave and an equally prolonged power failure at the same time is rare, but one should plan against that occurrence. In nearly all such cases, one can obtain a supply of large blocks of ice and place these in the wine cellar until the power goes back on and the room again attains its ideal temperature. Those who keep very large collections or have a stock of very expensive wine will find that having a generator on hand to supply power in times of extended power failure is a good investment. Humidity is also an important factor. In cellars that are too dry, corks tend to shrink and this lets air into the bottles. Air is as much an enemy of wine as high temperatures. A simple humidifier will solve this problem in almost all cases. In those rooms where humidity is too high, cardboard boxes will tend to rot and labels will quickly become unreadable. If high humidity is unavoidable, be sure not to store your wines in cardboard and coat each label gently with scentless hair lacquer before storing it away. As to the requirement of relative darkness, simply use dim lights in your cellar. If the area selected is overly bright and this cannot be controlled, simply cover the bottles with blankets.
How Many Bottles Do You Store?
Even the most devoted wine drinkers rarely have enough space and never enough money to build the cellar of their dreams. One thus must make calculations of precisely how much wine they are likely to use. In a private cellar the best system is to calculate how often you entertain, drink wines alone or with your family, and give wines as gifts. Let us assume, for example, that an individual hosts one dinner party for ten every month. Again, let us assume that at each of these parties, 4 bottles of mature wine are consumed in addition to one or two of bottles whatever young whites and possibly Champagne and dessert wines are served. Those parties account for 48 bottles of mature wine and about 24 other bottles annually. If an additional three bottles a week are used for family consumption and gifts, this brings annual consumption to about 220 bottles annually.
Theoretically, the ideal permanent stock of this cellar will be calculated by multiplying annual consumption by the number of years various wines stay in the cellar. Assuming two years of age for 20% of the wines consumed (44 bottles); five years for 50% of the wines (110 bottles); and ten years for 30% (66 bottles) of the wines, the calculation can be made as follows:
44 x 2 + 110 x 5 + 66 x 10 = 1300 bottles.
An additional calculation of about 15% should be made for such special wines as port, sherry, Champagne and wines meant for everyday consumption, and this brings the permanent size of this cellar to about 1500 bottles.
Consider How to Store Wines in Your Cellar
The storage space of wine cellars is divided into bins and racks. Bins are large open shelves or spaces on the floor where large quantity of one wine is laid bottle on bottle. The simplest bins are simple wood cartons. Considering that most very fine wine are shipped in wood packing crates, these make perfect storage boxes (mini-bins, if one likes) in which to keep the wine while it matures. Those who do buy by the whole case do not unpack the wines until they have reason to think the wine will be reaching maturity.
Racks are specially designed storage spaces meant for holding different types of wines and these can be divided into either single-bottle slots (one or two deep), or into diamond shaped slots large enough to hold half a dozen or more bottles, depending on the quantities you usually buy. Most collectors who build racks find that the most convenient sized racks are either single-bottle or dozen-bottle racks.
When designing a cellar, be sure to make an allowance for other than normally sized bottles. Although 750 ml. bottles have been accepted for generations as the most convenient regular size, bigger bottles keep wine even better. In fact, the length of the life, rate of maturity, and eventual quality of really fine wines are all in direct proportion to bottle size. A good rule of thumb is to purchase 4 - 6 magnum sized bottles to every 12 bottles of each wine for which you have really high hopes. With one or two rare exceptions (normally Champagne), most people avoid buying bottles larger than magnums, as they are too hard to handle. Space should also be allowed for some half bottles. These are occasionally convenient, especially for wines like the expensive dessert wines of Sauternes.
It should go without saying that nearly all wines should be stored on their sides so that the wine stays in contact with the cork, thus keeping the cork from shrinking and air from getting in (air is as much an enemy of wine as high temperatures). Champagne, Port and most other fortified wines can be stored standing up.
One problem that also offers a great deal of pleasure, as one's collection grows is keeping track of the bottles on hand. Whether one keeps all of the same wine in the same rack or chooses to use a random storage system is unimportant, but both should rely on a dedicated bookkeeping system in order not to mislay bottles just when you want them. This "cellar book" which should also contain a diagram of the storage layout is useful so that collectors can know what to buy, when they need to buy, and what they have consumed. The pleasure is that such a book also provides a fascinating record of the wines you have drunk, with what meals and with whom. In charting the development of a case that is sampled over several years it's fun to reminisce.
For the restaurateur, the advantages of maintaining a serious wine cellar are most apparent, for whatever economic benefits may accrue, they also add enormously to the prestige of their establishment. For the wine lover, a private cellar has even more charm, for in addition to the feeling of owning, controlling, cherishing and exploiting it, it gives us the opportunity to watch each wine develop as it builds towards its peak and then holds a plateau of perfection before it finally fades.
When Building a Wine Cellar is NOT an Option
The romantic thought of having one's own wine cellar may be, not all of us have the necessary space that is required, and not everyone is ready to part with the amount of money that constructing such a cellar certainly will entail. This need not be a problem, especially for those whose collections are relatively small, for there is the option of the refrigerated wine cabinets that are now widely available.
Such cabinets, which many think of as miniature wine cellars, began to appear here about three years ago. The idea itself is not, however, new, as the very first commercially manufactured cabinets meant to hold wine appeared in England and the United States in the mid-1930s. The earliest models, all of which were custom made, were so expensive that only either the rich or the powerful could afford them. Winston Churchill limited his purchases to two such cabinets, only one of which held wine, however, for he used the other to store his cigars. Remember those cigars.
Fortunately, wine storage cabinets are no longer as expensive as they once were. Far less expensive than building a wine cellar, easy to maintain, and often attractively designed, they offer an excellent solutions to two broad categories of consumers: wine lovers who want to build a small to moderate collection of wines and restaurateurs, for use either as storage or as display cabinets to encourage the sale of the wines listed on their wine menus.
Regardless of whether they are destined for living rooms, kitchens or restaurants, all well-made wine cabinets should meet certain basic requirements. It is critical, for example, that all such cabinets be quiet, odor free and vibration free. They must be also well enough insulated that in case of a power failure that they will maintain their temperature for a prolonged period of time.
While it is clear that restaurateurs will require cabinets in which the wine can be viewed attractively, those purchasing refrigerated wine cabinets for their home will have to decide whether their wines will be "on display" in a hall or even in the living room. Although cabinets destined primarily for storage and not display can have doors with a solid face of stainless steel or wood, those meant for display should have glass panels, so that friends or customers can see the contents. Because temperature control is crucial to wine storage, potential buyers should be certain that regardless of what materials the doors are made of, that they are as well insulated as the other walls of the cabinet. Among other things, that means that glass fronted doors should be thermally constructed, that is to say, two layers of glass with a layer of either air or inert gas hermetically sealed between them. If glass is the choice, those concerned with long-term storage should also ensure that the glass be tinted, the darker the better, because bright light is as much an enemy of wine as high temperatures.
Shelves, so that one can either store or display wine divides all of the cabinets available by categories (whites, reds, roses, sparkling wines). Some, especially those destined for the restaurants, because wines will be ready to serve from them, feature shelves each of which has a different temperature range, each suited to a specific type of wine (whites, Champagnes, young or mature reds, etc., each of which requires a different serving temperature). Ideally, such "temperature variable" cabinets will have compartments that range in temperature from 6 - 18 degrees Celsius. Those meant for longer term storage would ideally have the same steady temperature, as you would find in a more formal wine cellar.
It is also important that such wine storage cabinets maintain the proper level of humidity. Although a humidity level of 50% is acceptable, the ideal is between 70 - 75%. Keep in mind as well that such units should have a removable tray so that one can dispose of water that condensates during the refrigeration process. Keep in mind as well that vibration is also an enemy of wine, and that the wine refrigerator you purchase should be insulated against vibration. In some of the very best wine refrigerators, the motor is actually separate from the refrigerator itself, thus eliminating vibration almost completely. Cabinets are currently available that hold from 60 - 400 bottles but the most popular are those that hold between 100 - 120. I can't imagine that the average consumer would not want to take advantage of special sales and auctions that are literally all over. Limiting myself to just a mere 100 bottles just doesn't seem to be why I have this cellar.