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Proper wine storage – a temperature myth?

by Lee Zinser, Founder of Cellarworks

You see the wine steward in distance. He is pulling a bottle of wine from the cellar that just moments ago you selected from the wine list. The wine comes from a great vineyard and the vintage is one of the best. The wine arrives, and while being shown the bottle you reach out and touch the bottle. Your hand confirms it has been stored correctly...or has it?

 

Let’s Ask Victoria

Quite often the question ‘what is the best temperature to store wines?’ is asked. I hear numbers like 55 degrees, 57 degrees and 58 degrees. I hear of passive cellars that fluctuate between 53 and 61 degrees in the course of a year with summer hitting the higher temperatures and winter the lower temperatures. Auction catalogues often say ‘properly stored by gentleman in the Midwest, but what is "properly stored" and where is the Midwest?

            It is universally agreed that the middle to high 50s is the proper storage temperature. Why this particular temperature range, and, more importantly, does it really matter? This approved temperature range started hundreds of years ago, before HVAC and mechanical equipment. It just so happens that anytime you go below the frost line anywhere in the world, that the median temperature is around 56 degrees. So when you have an underground cellar in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or another wine producing area, the passive temperature where the wines are stored and will mature is around 56 degrees.

            Is this coincidental? Is it just by chance that convenient, free to operate and natural storage conditions just happen to be the magic number for the wine to mature and be stored? Is this temperature range always the "right" range? Well, it all depends on who you are at war with.

During the Victorian Era, England, who enjoyed French wines that were properly stored, was cut off when a war again ensued against the French. In an effort to maintain the life they were accustomed to, the English looked to other sources and decided again on Madeira.

            Earlier, lessons had been learned when these wines were shipped around Cape of Good Hope. They were transported in the hulls of ships over the equator, and would frequently reach cooking temperatures. To preserve the wine in these harsh conditions they added clear alcohol in order to fortify it. When this cooked, oxidized and ruined wine hit the shores of England it became a hit; indeed, it was a most celebrated drink, akin to Champagne today.

            You can still find very enjoyable bottles of Madeira from the 1700s for a pretty penny. In the production of Madeira today they imitate the real conditions that existed during the trading years. The wine is cooked, oxidized and treated harshly, which makes it highly sought after.

 

Carafe of Red

Quite often I am asked the question about storing white wines at a lower temperature than red wines, and I always go back to two very important points. The first is that the temperature for storing wine is not the same as for drinking wine. Secondly, when you go to the Champagne region, Bordeaux or Burgundy, all the wines are stored in natural cellars under the frost line and therefore within 55 to 59 degrees.

            The reason many ask about storing white wines at a lower temperature is firstly due of advertising and marketing, which tries to sell more expensive wine fridges with dual temperatures, and second of all because we have been trained to drink white wines colder since the imperfection of the lower cost white wines can be masked at lower temperatures. It is a different story with lower value red wines: just imagine sitting around a wooden table with a large group of friends on a chilly night eating pasta, talking and laughing while drinking homemade Italian red wine. It may not be the best wine you have ever had but nobody notices due the good time being had by all. Inexpensive white wines do not have that same chance. The imperfections of lower valued white wines need to be masked and are often served from ice buckets - even in 3-star Michelin restaurants.

 

The Big Day

So now you are at the auction bidding on some 1961 first growths. You have been told the wines have been kept in "properly stored conditions", and have even inspected the wines. You win the lot and upon getting it home decide to celebrate. You open one bottle with friends and it is everything you expected. A short while later at another event you decide to open another bottle, but this one is a complete embarrassment. What happened?

            In the early 1960s when the wine was bottled there may have been some imperfections in the cork, the capsule or during bottling. In stable and appropriate conditions these imperfections may not compromise the wine. During early years before temperature controlled shipping and regular overnight deliveries, the wine could have been exposed to very harsh conditions. Huge fluctuations in temperature will test the imperfections of both cork and capsule, as well as stress the wine itself. In many cases, we only know the most recent storage conditions of the wines we are buying, and while the current conditions of even the past ten years may be good, it will not make up for harsh conditions of the previous 30 years. There is just no repairing the six weeks it sat on a dock in Honduras during mid-summer before being shipped to the US in the 1970s.

            So while we currently see our hopeful wine purchase in pristine condition, the life course of our wine may not always have been so kind. Heat, cold, vibration and light, as well as imperfections in the wine, bottle and closure all contribute to the wines detriment. Unlike a smoker who has stopped smoking for many years and now benefits from renewed health, the damage a wine sustains is irreversible no matter how good the storage conditions are later in life.

 

Raising Up Kids

Scientifically, temperature plays a big role in the development of wine. There are a number of aspects to consider, and to start with we understand that heat translates into energy. Wine evolves over time and if the temperature it is stored at or exposed to is high, then the molecular structure and development is faster than its years. When it is too low then development is stunted. We can illustrate it this way: by adding excessive heat or high temperatures during storage, we are forcing a young child to behave and act like a grown up. We lose the maturity that comes with time. On the other hand, if the wines are stored in very low temperatures, it will reach a good age but may be stunted in terms of maturity. In both cases, we are forcing the wine to develop at a rate inappropriate to its age. Many studies suggest that the 56-59 range is appropriate for a balanced development, which allows the wine to mature without losing finesse.

            There are a few reasons to deviate from the status quo and two points come to mind in practical application. The first deals with fragile wines. These are wines that are older and have already reached their full maturity. By lowering the temperature to the low 50s we slow down molecular activity, which will extend and preserve the life of the wine. The other example of deviation is represented in our opening illustration at a restaurant. In this situation, we recognise two variables in play: the first is that the wine being sold has a fairly regular turnover and is not in danger of being ruined over the few months it spends in the restaurant at a higher storage temperature (around 60 degrees). The other consideration is that when we have made our wine selection we do not want to wait twenty minutes or more while it comes up to drinking temperature.

            This situation of high turnover in wines quite often extends beyond restaurants and is seen in wine stores as well. Very often we see very expensive wines in liquor stores being stored at room temperature. Of course after changing hands many times these same wines may end up in a cellar and then later sold as "properly stored" at auction, with the end user none the wiser.

 

Proper storage and appropriate temperatures will certainly enhance the enjoyment of most wines. These various scenarios are just a few I discuss with clients in preliminary consultation with them during their wine cellar design. Understanding the effects of various temperatures, the objective of the collector and the various kinds of wines to be collected helps us arrive at an appropriate solution. We arrive at the perfect temperature and "proper storage conditions".

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