I don't own a lot of wine, especially when compared to some of my colleagues. And what I do own isn't particularly expensive--the average bottle in my "collection" costs between $12-$15. But after a couple of prematurely popped corks and bottles seeping in the sweltering second-floor, unairconditoned Hollywood apartment I used to call home, addressing my wine storage situation became unavoidable.
Unless you buy a bottle of wine at a time and quickly drink it (like that night, or within the week), you too have probably struggled with where to put the wine you buy. A cute little wine rack on the kitchen counter? A closet? The basement? A wine fridge? Figuring out the best place to store your wine starts with understanding what, exactly, you're trying to protect it from.
Wine is, essentially, a living thing, evolving over time and eventually deteriorating. And like most living things, it has a few enemies that can hasten its demise, namely: light, humidity, oxygen and temperature. Mitigating these factors can help assure that when you're ready to drink your wine, whether it's in a couple of weeks, a couple of years or a couple of decades, it drinks at its best.
Light & Vibration
My younger cousin tans beautifully, her mocha colored skin looks healthy and athletic, compared to mine, which looks more like steamed milk. When I mentioned this to her one afternoon she reassured me. "Yes, but..." she said, "One day you'll still be a grape, and I'll be a raisin."
Just like sun exposure can damage your skin, light can damage your wine. Ultraviolet (UV) light, from fluorescent bulbs as well as the sun, can cause the organic compounds that make your bottle of Pinot Noir smell like blueberry cobbler, taste like freshly-tilled soil, mushrooms, blueberries and spice, and give it body, to deteriorate, reducing your wine to something flat and uninteresting at best. (The same goes for beer, too.) A wine damaged thusly is called "light struck" and it can be simply be prevented by keeping your wine in a dark place.
Humidity & Oxygen
A wine's seal, no matter what it's made from, is intended to keep air out of the bottle and wine in. If the humidity is low where you live or where you've stored your wine, a traditional cork can dry out, breaking the seal and subsequently speeding up oxidation and evaporation. While the increased use of alternative closures like Stelvin screwtops and synthetic corks make humidity less important, unless you know every wine in your collection is finished with something other than cork, there are two things you should do. First, store bottles on their side. This helps keep the cork moist and the seal in tact. Second, choose a storage solution where relative humidity is consistent, if you can. Seventy percent humidity is considered ideal.
While light and humidity can damage wine, its nemesis is temperature. Wine oxidizes faster at higher temperatures. Heat can also create unwanted chemical reactions in wine--changing the color, bouquet and flavors. A heat-damaged wine can taste "cooked" or sherried, and the fruit can be utterly destroyed. Just a few hours in a 90-degree car can turn a bottle of $15 Syrah into expensive salad dressing. And while it's unlikely that a 73-degree closet at the back of the house will turn all of your wine into vinegar, it will last longer if you store it at cooler temperatures.
It's commonly accepted that the "ideal" temperature for storing wine is a constant 55 degrees. Why? Well, that's because the underground cellars all around Europe, where wine has been stored for centuries with great success are, in fact, around 55 degrees. A little cooler probably wouldn't hurt the wine, since the alcohol will keep it from freezing, but for maximum freshness, especially if you're thinking about medium- to long-term aging, 55 is a nice, easy number to remember.
Maintaining a consistent temperature is also important. Fluctuations in temperature cause wine to expand and contract, jeopardizing the seal around the cork and increasing the chance of premature oxidation.
Next up, in-home wine storage solutions...