As specialists in old and historic vintages, we frequently visit private and professional cellars around the country. We also assess the condition of older bottles arriving with us on a daily basis. There are numerous guides online to cellaring fine wine and these notes will probably not add much new to the subject, but they do reflect our personal views, based on long experience.
As the saying goes, when it comes to old vintages, “there are no great wines, only great bottles”. Correct storage can make all the difference between a wine being in perfect condition or being a disappointment when you finally come to open it.
Ideal storage conditions are easily summarised and are pretty universal:
10-13°C is ideal for long-term storage (1-100+ yrs!). In the shorter term, wines will suffer no ill effect from storage at circa 7-21°C (assuming the other conditions below are met).
If the wine does reach higher temperatures, be especially cautious of rapid fluctuations. This can cause the glass to expand more rapidly than the cork, allowing air and bacteria to enter. Sometimes this is visible as seepage from the closure…if wine can get out, spoilage bacteria can get in.
High temperatures of 26°C or above can cause damage to a wine in just a few hours. The Maillard reaction, commonly known as caramelisation, plays a role in wine as well as food. A reaction between the amino acids in proteins and reducible sugars (glucose), it occurs to a degree in all wines as they age.
When it occurs to a pronounced or excessive degree, it gives aromas known in tasting terms as “madérisé” or maderised. A small amount of madérisé character can add complexity and depth (for instance, in vintage champagne) but at higher levels it can be a fault, over-powering the fruit aromas with a maderised or ‘cooked’ aroma. The level at which it is desirable and at which it becomes a fault is largely subjective.
This is a more important factor than most people think, principally as most fine wines are bottled under cork. For long-term storage, cork requires humidity to stop it from drying out. Circa 50-70% is an ideal level.
Modern centrally heated homes are often below this level and are not suitable for long-term storage.
The cellars of traditional English country houses, Oxbridge Colleges and the like are often at higher levels. This is very apparent as paper wine labels deteriorate at this level…bad for cosmetic appearance, but such wines usually have excellent fill-levels, far more important for wine quality!
Cellar conditioning units and wine storage solutions like the Eurocave have humidity control.
Less well-known is the effect of light on wine bottles. Even short-term exposure to light can create an effect known as ‘light-strike’. UV rays from sun or artificial light transform amino acids in wine into a group of compounds known as dimethyl disulphide (DMDS) that smell like old cabbage or damp clothes. The French term is ‘gout de fenêtre’, literally, the ‘taste of the window’, i.e., the character of a wine which has been on display in a shop window for too long.
This is particularly an issue for wines in clear glass, which includes many rosé wines. Some wine experts believe that exposure to light even for a few hours can have an impact. We learnt some of the science of this from Tony Milanowkski, when he was a lecturer in winemaking at Plumpton College. Now a winemaker at Rathfinny Estate, he has done lots to raise awareness of the issue.
There are two main things we know on this subject: to avoid disturbing sediment in old wines, and that normal fridges (rather than specialist wine fridges) are not suitable for long-term storage, as their compressors create vibrations. Specialist wine fridges and storage units like the Eurocave often keep the compressor separate from the body of the fridge to avoid this.
We confess we didn’t know the science behind this, but according to an article in Decanter Magazine: “Vibration can disturb sediment present in the bottle, but it also causes complex chemical reactions which are less visible. Vibration (and the resulting increased kinetic energy in the bottle) leads to a decrease in tartaric and succinic acids, causing a reduction in esters, which dulls flavours.”
All of the above factors need to be considered throughout the whole life of the wine. Lovingly storing your fine wine purchases in perfect conditions for years will be undermined if the wine has been mistreated before it arrives with you. Here are some of the measures we take:
First and foremost, we use our knowledge and long experience of all of the above factors when buying and transporting our wines, whether it be a large shipment direct from Bordeaux, or some old and rare bottles from a private collector.
Wines for long-term storage are held in bonded cellars, with temperature control.
Our small cellar shop below our office in Aldeburgh has low lighting levels and is unheated, with wines stored longer term kept in a Eurocave.
We avoid shipping wines from warm countries in the summer months or during hot weather, to avoid consignments being left in shippers’ warehouses or docksides exposed to the sun.
We avoid despatching wines via couriers on a Friday, when there is a likelihood the parcel will spend a weekend in a depot.
We suggest following these tips for storing your wines, whether you have a proper home cellar or not:
Wines for investment should always be stored in bond, in professional cellars. In a bonded warehouse, wine can be stored without payment of UK duty. All wines are very strictly controlled in this environment, for legal and tax reasons as well as offering the correct storage conditions. You can see our current rates for storage here.
For investment-grade wines, original wooden cases (OWC) or card cases (OCC) should be kept.
When buying everyday drinking wines, do remember not to leave them in the car on hot days. An hour or two at 40°C in the back of a hot car will do them no favours!
Professionally built cellars like offerings from Spiral Cellars run to five or six figures. However, one of the most cost-effective purchases you can make might be an inexpensive digital thermometer to keep near your wine collection, as a constant reminder of the temperature; even better if it has a 'Min/Max' function.
If you don’t have a proper cellar or a cool place at home and hot weather is forecast (very relevant after the summer we have just had!) then do try to get any treasured bottles into a fridge, for the short-term, it will protect them from the worst effects of the heat.
Wines stoppered with corks should be stored on their sides. Contact with the wine prevents them from drying out. The exceptions are wines under screwcaps and champagne bottles, which can be stored upright. The composite material used in sparkling wine corks is not liable to dry out and there is slightly more probability of spoilage coming from contact with the cork.*
*We are aware of studies by the AWRS (Australian Wine Research Institute) and the cork manufacturer Amorim which appear to show that wine can be stored upright, as the airspace in the neck is at 100% humidity and will keep the cork moist. However, the AWRS study only covered wines stored up to five years. We routinely deal with wines stored for many decades and are confident that storage on the side is important in this instance.
With rising global demand for the world's most sought-after wines and with prices reaching five or six figures per case, provenance and perfect condition are increasingly important. Some Bordeaux châteaux are releasing more (or in the case of estates like Latour, all) of their wine later when it is ready to drink. This stock is often at a 10-30% premium to stock not stored at the estate, a useful illustration of the potential importance of storage.
We are always happy to advise our customers on storing their collections, so do please get in touch.
Antony Irvine has worked in the wine trade since 1990, starting out, as with many of his generation, in wine, on the shop floor in various branches of Oddbins, where he completed his WSET Diploma. This inspired him to work in Bordeaux at a well-known cru classé château. Since moving on to the fine wine trade he has tasted every Bordeaux vintage from barrel, without exception, for the last 25 years.
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