Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
One of the most alluring qualities of wine is its ability to age. Even when it’s in a sealed bottle, wine develops flavor and becomes more complex over time—that is, if it’s stored correctly. Proper storage can help prevent the tragedy of saving a bottle for a special occasion only to find that it has turned to vinegar when you finally open it.
The standard advice for storing wine is simple: keep bottles on their side in a cool, dark place. Each element of this practice is designed to protect bottles from common flaws. To understand why this method works, it’s helpful to understand the damage heat, light, and oxygen can do. To learn about the risks and rewards of wine storage, we spoke to Daniel de la Nuez of Forthave Spirits and Cesar Vega of Les Vins de Barbichette.
Whether or not you plan on investing in special storage equipment, following these tips will help you keep your wine safe until you plan to enjoy it.
Temperature Matters (or, What is Cellaring Anyways?)
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When it comes to storing wine, heat is the enemy. Think about the transformative powers of heat during cooking—a ripe strawberry has much lighter and brighter flavors than cooked strawberry jam, which is rich and fudgy. Heat can create a similar change in wine. During storage, excessive temperatures can cook wine, transforming its fresh fruit profile into a murky, raisiny mess. While this process, known as maderisation, is intentional when making Madeira (a fortified wine known for its nutty and caramelized flavors), when this happens accidentally, it’s considered a flaw.
The ideal temperature for storing wine is between 55°F to 57ºF. This range is known as cellar temperature—it’s much warmer than the average household refrigerator but cool enough to prevent maderization. Prior to modern heating and cooling technology, wine (and other perishables, including root vegetables) were stored in cellars. Because they’re underground, cellars aren’t as susceptible to temperature changes as other rooms in the house.
Store Bottles Stopped with Natural Cork on Their Sides
While wine and heat are enemies, oxygen and wine are more like frenemies. When it’s time to serve, oxygen helps the wine open and and express its best flavors—this is why many people choose to decant the bottle before serving or swirl wine around in the glass before tasting. During storage, slow exposure to oxygen over time is what allows bottles to develop as they age. However, if too much oxygen is introduced at once, the wine can turn to vinegar. Natural cork closures are the key to keeping this relationship civil. Cork is porous, which allows for a slow exchange of oxygen over time—it prevents the bottle from spoiling and integrates enough air for the wine to mature. For this to work properly, you need to protect the cork. Natural cork can dry out and crack over time. If this happens, air will flow into the bottle as though it had been opened. Storing bottles on their side keeps the wine in contact with the cork and prevents it from drying out.
If your bottle isn’t closed with natural cork, this step is less important. Crown caps, screw caps, and synthetic corks aren’t susceptible to drying out. These bottles can be stored vertically.
Keep It Dark
Just as we protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful UV rays, so too must we protect our wine. While we shield ourselves with sunscreen, the best way to keep wine safe is by storing it in the dark. UV rays can catalyze a chemical reaction in wine, creating a flaw known as light strike, which creates off-putting sulfuric flavors. White and light wines are especially vulnerable—this is why they’re often packaged in dark green bottles. If not stored in the dark, the fresh fruity notes in your favorite chardonnay could transform into wooly and cabbagey aromas (yuck).
Consider a Wine Refrigerator for Long-Term Storage
At home, Daniel de la Nuez uses a Eurocave wine refrigerator for long-term storage. The best wine refrigerators have tinted doors and shelves for horizontal storage (protecting the wine from light strike and the cork from drying out). But while wine refrigerators are helpful, they are also quite expensive. But, the good news is, there are other options. Caesar Vega of Les Vins de Barbichette uses his home basement, which he has outfitted with wine racks for horizontal storage. Even if it isn’t temperature controlled, a basement typically has a cooler ambient temperature that fluctuates less than a kitchen or pantry.
That Said, Some Wines Aren’t Meant to Be Stored for the Long Term
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
For short-term storage, the best solution depends on the type of wine. Red wines can be stored at room temperature for several days, and white wines can be kept in the refrigerator (although you should let them warm up slightly before drinking). Short-term storage isn’t just for novices—not all bottles are intended to age. “Some wines are for drinking now, others are for aging,” says de la Nuez “Primary fruit tends to fall away as the wine ages.” Whites, rosés, and some natural wines are created to showcase delicate fruit and light floral flavors. These bottles are best consumed fresh and young. It’s perfectly fine to store them for a few weeks or even months, but if they’re stored for too long, the subtle notes will dull over time. If a wine has a synthetic cork or a crown cap, that’s a good sign that it was intended for immediate consumption.
Storing Open Bottles
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
All opened wines, red or white, should be kept in the refrigerator. To store an open bottle of wine, de la Nuez recommends simply replacing the cork and placing the bottle upright in the fridge. That said, resist the urge to turn the cork upside down! Although it may be easier to fit the cork in the bottle this way, the unused side of the cork might introduce bacteria into the wine. If fitting the cork back into the bottle is too challenging, a tapered stopper is a simple way to seal a bottle.
Look to Stoppers to Keep Bubbles in Bubbly
The best way to enjoy the bubbles in sparkling wine is to drink the bottle on the same day that it’s opened. After the cork has been removed, CO2 will begin to escape, and the wine will go flat within a few days. But if you have part of a bottle left over after your Champagne toast, Vega recommends sealing it with a locking bottle stopper to help preserve the carbonation.
There’s a persistent myth that placing the handle of a metal spoon in a bottle of sparkling wine will help retain the bubbles. Although he’s charmed by the lore, Vega doesn’t put much stock in this method.
What is the proper way to store wine?
Protect wine from heat, sun, and oxygen by storing bottles on their side in a cool, dark, place. Frequent wine drinkers might consider investing in a wine storage rack or wine refrigerator. In addition to providing horizontal storage, a dedicated rack can help minimize the risk of bottle breakage.
What is the ideal long-term storage for wine?
The absolute best long-term storage for wine is a wine cellar—a cool, underground storage space with an earthen floor. Unfortunately, this isn’t a realistic solution for anyone who doesn’t own a chateau. Basements and wine refrigerators offer similar temperature-controlled environments that will keep bottles safe.
Do you have to store different wines differently?
For long-term storage, the rules remain pretty much the same whether you’re working with white, red, or sparkling wine. When it comes to short-term storage, there’s more flexibility. Red wine can be safely stored at room temperature for several days and white wines will be comfortable in a standard refrigerator. Wine closed with non-traditional methods, like screw caps or crown caps, can be stored vertically without fear of the cork drying out.