No Sour Grapes: The Experts Spill Their Secrets to Wine Storage

By Diane White McNaughton

Wine lovers, raise your glasses! Here’s another reason to drink the nectar of the gods (as if you needed one). 

Louis Pasteur, author of the germ theory, says, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.”   

In this germophobic age, that pronouncement sounds worthy of a toast. But even before COVID-19 upended our world, most vino enthusiasts knew that drinking responsibly really means never spilling a drop. 

The joys of wine have been celebrated since the ancient days of Greek gods and Biblical wedding feasts. As we all hunker down at home, wine remains the “it” beverage of the quarantine, and storage rooms and refrigerators are the appliance and home renovation du jour. Eye-catching wine rooms and cellars with exotic woods, glass walls, stone partitions, and tasting rooms are in demand in the luxury home market, report home builders, decorators and appliance sellers nationwide.    

But you don’t have to build an elaborate wine cellar ala Bruce Wayne’s Batman or purchase a dedicated wine refrigerator to store wine properly. The experts were happy to pour on the advice.     

Chef Brien O’Brien, who frequently conducts local wine tastings virtually and who appeared on MasterChef with Gordon Ramsey in 2017, joined Josh Hull, wine buyer for the Chairman’s Selection ® and Chairman’s Advantage ® programs, for the Liquor Control Board’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits, in spilling the goods on our wine questions.    

Know the enemy

Wine should be stored in a consistently “dark, fairly dry, and cool place,” O’Brien says. Hull says the temperature should be about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus five degrees, with a humidity level around 70 percent. The area should also be vibration-free, such as a basement.

But to really understand why these attributes are needed, O’Brien outlined the four main factors that can affect wine during storage: sunlight, heat, air, and time. First, sunlight can be harmful to wine once in the bottle, which is why tinted glass bottles are used instead of clear. Clear glass bottles are sometimes used for Sauvignon Blanc, which is a wine that does not age particularly well, O’Brien says.

Second, “Heat hurts wine because it will start to accelerate the aging process of wine –in a bad way– once the wine inside the bottle reaches 70 degrees, so keeping wine stored under that 70 degree threshold is key,” he says.

Third, air also deteriorates wine once in the bottle, he says. The key to preventing oxygen from penetrating the bottle before being opened is to maintain proper cork health. Cork is wood, and like all other wood, will deteriorate over time. The best way to slow down wood’s aging process is to keep it in liquid.

Therefore, “It is critically important that wine is stored so that liquid is touching the cork at all times,” O’Brien says. This is why bottles of wine are stored laying on their side or upside down. As long as liquid is always touching the inside of that cork, the cork should not rot and will maintain a proper seal in the bottle, preventing oxygenation.

The final factor is time, O’Brien says. All wine has a ticking time limit governing how long it can age before becoming vinegar. White wine tends to age far more poorly than red wine, and certain varietals of red wine age much longer and better than others.

Hull says, “A basement that is fully underground is often a great choice (for wine storage). Ultimately, how long you plan to store your wines will dictate how necessary it is to be at or close to these ideal conditions.”

O’Brien says he personally has three wine fridges, all full. He also has overflow wine stored in case boxes where the bottles sit upside down in the box. The boxes are then stored in a dark closet in his house.

If you are just drinking your everyday “two-buck-Chuck,” O’Brien says that is not designed to be aged for years.  But for artisan crafted boutique wines from around the world, then age is good. Each “vintage” — the year those grapes grew on the vines– bring different characteristics to the grapes and therefore bring different flavors to the wine.

“Each bottle of wine is a time capsule of the year and area in which those grapes grew,” O’Brien explained. “If you as a wine drinker fall in love with a particular bottle of wine of limited supply, buy as much as you can drink before the wine starts to deteriorate,” he says. He says this is not only an investment in your future, but it brings an added bonus in the form of a bulk discount.

“Normally, most white wines aren’t stored for longer than five years or so, but red wines can be aged and stored from 20 to even 50 years or longer if properly stored,” he added.  

The prep before the pour

With white wine, no special preparation is needed. Just pop the cork and enjoy. With red wine, sometimes it is proper to decant the wine.  This is especially true for aged red wine, because a lot of decanters also filter the wine for any cork or other solid particles that are sometimes found in very old red wines. The decanting process allows the wine to be reintroduced to oxygen, which allows it to “breathe,” reigniting the flavor of the wine.

To decant, Hull says, you need a large surface area exposed to air – simply opening the bottle ahead of time will not do the trick.

“If you’re in a hurry, vigorously swirl the wine around in the decanter or in your glass (without spilling!) to expedite and maximize the exposure to air.”

If you are opening a very old wine or one you’ve been storing for quite some time, you may want to stand the bottle upright for at least a few hours before serving – especially with tannic reds, your wine may have a significant amount of sediment that has formed in the bottle, and you’ll want that sediment to settle to the bottom of the bottle so you can keep from pouring it into your glass or that of your guests.

“The sediment is harmless but not very appetizing,” Hull added.  

Old world or new age?

But is finding a favorite a matter of trial and error, when the rows of liquid options seem endless?

“I like to suggest that people test their own palates to figure out their own particular preferences in wine,” O’Brien recommended.  If they like wine from old world regions like France or Italy or new world regions like Napa or Australia, he advises to buy two of the same varietal from the same vintage, one from an old world region and one from a new.

“Try the wines side-by-side to determine if you prefer old world or new. Once you try this with a number of different varietals and over a few different vintages, you will quickly learn your personal preferences, which will help make the wine buying process much easier for you in the future.”

“If you plan on keeping age-worthy wines, such as young Bordeaux and Barolo, for a number of years, then yes – I would recommend prioritizing storage by investing in either a wine cooler or a cellar,” Hull says.  Lacking a cool, dark basement with fairly constant temperatures, many wine cooler options are available in just about any size to fit your collection, Hull says.

“I also recommend investing in a small cooler to keep in your kitchen or dining room to hold wines you will enjoy in the near term so they’re ready at a perfect serving temperature,” he added.

Particularly for reds, wines served at a slightly cool temperature in the low 60s Fahrenheit best balance the components of the wine.

Wines sealed by screwcap and sparkling wines can be stored either upright or on their side.  

Getting older, getting better?

Not every wine improves with age.

“Younger wines will generally display brighter primary fruit flavors, more structured tannins, more prominent oak influence,” Hull says. “Over time, the wine can change quite substantially, with less fruit, softer tannins and more integrated oak, as well as possibly developing some interesting secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors.”

“Many wines released today are made to be enjoyed immediately, so it’s best to do a little research before laying down your favorite wine for an extended period of time,” Hull says.  He recommends reading the winery’s website for advice about aging and conferring with the wine specialist at your local Fine Wine & Good Spirits Premium Collection store. 

For most wines, you should be fine to open the bottle, pour a glass and enjoy without any additional steps, Hull says.

“In general, the lighter-bodied the wine, the cooler you want to serve, and vice-versa – serve a touch warmer as you get to wines with more body,” Hull says.  

The toast of the town

Does Hull have any secret libation loves?

“I love to highlight regions that are underappreciated and offer tremendous value – check out wines from Washington State and Spain.

“In terms of varietals, while I am a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, look to Syrah (also known as Shiraz) from Washington State for complex, generous reds that offer the most complexity for the price,” Hull says.

“Spain offers a treasure trove of incredible values, from Monastrell (Mourvèdre)-based reds from Eastern Spain, to Tempranillo from Rioja, to crisp whites like Albariño from Northwest Spain – there is just so much to discover and the value can’t be matched.”

O’Brien’s favorite wine is a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  In summer, he drinks a lot of white, German, aromatic varietals.

“I am drinking a lot of Gewürztraminer from Clif Family Winery, Dry Riesling from Trefethen Family Winery, and the Blanc De Blancs from Scramsberg is my favorite bottle of ‘bubbles’ right now,” he says.

For a wine that delights both the palate and the pocketbook, he suggests La Marca Prosecco, which can be found at almost every grocery store in America. For special occasions, O’ Brien recommends the Blanc de Blancs from Scramsberg, which he says is a “beautifully crafted sparkling white wine, perfect for any and all special occasions.” He also suggests a Napa cab for a special occasion.

“I love Clif Family Winery’s 2016 Croquet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and keep it on hand for any special night.”

Whatever your taste and whenever the occasion, a glass of wine can ease your stress, accent your meals, and boost your heart health. Cheers!