How long can you keep wine in the cellar before it goes bad?

Published: 01st February 2010
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Maybe you have a painstakingly preserved bottle of Two-Buck Chuck 1991 or Cisco 1974 that you are keeping for an important anniversary? Inquiries concerning the storage of wine intrigue me seeing as roughly 90% of it is drunk within a couple of days of acquisition!

The length of time a wine should be cellared is really a tough question to reply to. One can find a great number of factors such as the variety of grape, type of wine, quality of vintage, skill of winemaker, track record of the company for creating wines that last well, and of course the cellaring environment where you store your wine.

Favorable conditions do much to help a wine to achieve long life. Optimal conditions are cool, away from light and moisture, with good ventilation and free from movement and strong smells. And if you are unfortunate enough not to own a manor with an underground chamber, rest easy because it is easy for us mere mortals to create such conditions.

Without a doubt the most critical consideration is temperature management, in particular, keeping it as stable as possible. Cellaring wine in places where temperatures vary slowly but surely between the seasons is good. On the other hand, stocking wine somewhere that is heated for part of the day and chills down to cold-month temperatures overnight is bad. Major temperature swings will bring forward the ruin of your wine.

The best temperature range for your cellar is 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity is best kept at 65-75 percent. Wine matures quicker when storage temperatures are in excess of 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This decreases the amount of time it will keep, so it's a good idea to use a thermometer to keep an eye on summer temperatures.

Keep bottles on their side, preferably with the neck angled upwards a little bit in order that the cork stays moist, the air bubble sits in the shoulder and sediment settles towards the bottom. Despite the fact that screw caps are considerably more ubiquitous nowadays, it is wise to maintain this procedure because it makes the wine less difficult to pour. Position the bottle so that the label faces up to avoid disturbing the bottle to identify it.

Air conditioning and refrigeration are good for reducing temperatures but also reduce humidity, which causes cork shrinkage with ruinous results. If you can afford it, a better alternative is a cellaring cabinet - effectively a modified refrigerator with humidity control - that several companies now offer in a range of sizes.

Cellaring wine is often problematic for apartment residents and owners of condos due to the restricted space available. In this situation, these small-footprint storage cabinets that resemble a fridge are just the thing. A very poor alternative would be keeping wine beneath the sink with hot & cold water in the sink constantly changing the temperature below, and usually a dishwasher next to it making things even worse. And having a radiator or heat grate alongside your wine rack would do appalling things to your prized collection.

If you own a house, the basement is a great place to store your wine. A brick or concrete cabinet or miniature room will moderate the temperature, and if you can insulate it, even better.

Monster reds used to be steeped in oak and not great drinking when young. The tannins mellowed and the fruit came into balance as they aged and after a number of years they were delicious drinking. These days, however, most wines do not improve with age. They just slowly develop into something different. Sometimes it's a better different; sometimes not.

Less expensive, light-bodied red wine and nearly all white wine that you drink throughout the working week is best consumed while fresh. Immediately is good, but otherwise within 1-2 years of buying. The primary fruit qualities are most optimal during this early period. Some wine might keep for a year or two longer but that does not mean it will improve with age. I recommend saving your limited cellar capacity for the best wine.

Wines that develop nicely as they mature over a period of years in the cellar are normally heavier weight, high quality red wines. Quality is key - nearly all good quality wines of this type will improve with maturity. Changes that take place within the chemistry of the wine as it matures bring out different aromas and flavors, bestowing more softness, greater complexity and more overall interest. When a great red wine reaches its peak, the tannins will no longer be harsh and you'll find hints of coffee, tobacco and cedar in the flavor mix. Pure pleasure!

I recommend buying 6-12 bottles of a premium red wine if you intend to cellar it. After a couple of years, drink a bottle every six months to assess its development. When you think it couldn't possibly taste any better, drink the rest up over the next few months!

If in doubt, drink it sooner rather than later - there are far too many "nursing home cellars" full of wine that has been kept too long and is past it. It is way better to drink a wine too young than too old!

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