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Storing wine over time has been a blessing and a curse since wine was first produced some 8,000 years ago. Earthenware jars were used to store the wine made at the earliest production site discovered to date, in the Republic of Georgia.

There wouldn’t have been much of a shelf life for that ancient wine. Wine not sealed in a vessel like a modern wine bottle quickly becomes undrinkable. Even wine in bottles that are recorked after being opened and stored in the fridge only remains palatable between a day and a week, depending on the type of wine.

Wine generally goes bad in one of two ways, the chemical process that is colloquially said to turn wine into vinegar (not exactly accurate but you get the point), and oxidation of the alcohol in the wine, which makes it unpleasant to drink in a similar way.

Effectively and safely storing noble wines over a long period of time, however, is typically a blessing. It’s also a chemical reaction, involving a wine’s natural acidity and an element called tannins, that enable a wine’s flavor, complexity, and depth to evolve and become greatly enhanced over time.

Avoiding the curse and affirming the blessing requires proper, climate-controlled wine storage, which is best accomplished through wine cellar design that expertly showcases and safeguards a wine collections.

Wherever you stand in the wine cellar design process—desire, planning, creation, or stocking and maintaining—there are 5 critical wine storage issues to keep in mind:

  1. Temperature. The Wine Spectator says the ideal range for storing fine wine is between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, with roughly 55 degrees being perfect. Anything over 70 degrees creates the risk that the wine will become “cooked,” essentially spoiling it. It’s not safe to store wine in the fridge long-term, however, because sustained cold temperatures and a lack of humidity to make the cork dry out. Consistency is also a key for proper wine storage temperatures. (Temperature is addressed in wine cellar design through cutting-edge climate control systems.)
  2. Humidity. Some sources don’t “sweat” humidity levels too much if wine storage temperatures are ideal and consistent. Still, enough humidity is vital to ensuring a long life for fine wines, as corks need to stay moist in order to maintain a tight seal on bottles that doesn’t allow oxygen to seep in and oxidize the wine. Too little moisture and you risk the quality of the wines, but too damp and you potentially invite mold. The old 80 percent humidity rule of thumb is thought to be too high for modern wine cellar design, creating the risk of mold. A level around 60 percent is ideal. (Humidity levels are also maintained by the climate control system.)
  3. Light. Wine bottles are made of thick, opaque glass for a reason. Ultraviolet light (UV) causes a chemical reaction that destroys the tannins in wine, causing it to prematurely age and oxidize. Authorities on wine storage even caution against storing wine in spaces with too much fluorescent light, which contains UV rays. LED lighting is often recommended for both safety and display enhancement. (Lighting is also a priority in the wine cellar design process.)
  4. Vibrations. Decanter offers a succinct explanation of why vibrations are bad for fine wine: “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.” (Summit Wine Cellars designs wine storage areas in a way to ensure vibrations are not an issue.)
  5. Security. Keeping your wine collection safe is about more than the temperature and humidity side of proper storage conditions. You also have to keep wines secure from things like theft, pilfering, and accidental breakage by careless or uninvited visitors to the wine cellar. “Safe wine cellar design keeps the cleaning lady or gardener honest … or your 16 year old kids who may be curious,” Summit Wine Cellars owner/designer Fred Tregaskis says a blog post about the importance of insuring wine collections. (The answer is including locks and motion detectors in the wine cellar design.)

There are two common issues often thought to be wine storage problems but really aren’t, and they can’t be addressed as part of wine cellar design—the quality of the wine you purchase for the cellar, and how long bottles are cellared before drinking.

When you open a special bottle of wine stored for a lengthy period of time and it’s not fabulous, or worse, you may assume something technical went wrong during the storage process (temperature, humidity, light), or blame yourself for miscalculating the peak drinking window for a wine.

Drinking wines from the cellar at the optimal times can be a challenge. Most merchants who deal in fine and rare vintages offer the same advice: while there’s plenty of information available to establish optimal drinking windows, you should also open a bottle when you first buy the wine, and then periodically enjoy more bottles, to see how the flavor profiles developing and check on your timing assumptions for full maturity.

However, that game plan and the five critical issues of wine cellar design chronicled above only apply to wines in very good condition at the outset of the storage process. Wines that have been compromised on their journey from bottling to the wine cellar or other storage area will never be optimal, which creates a need for quality control as part of the buying process.

See our related post:
How to Select the Right Wines for Your Wine Cellar

Practicing quality control is most easily accomplished with wines purchased when they’re young, shortly after release. Always work with trusted wine merchants, and always try a bottle or two of the wines you’re buying in cases to ensure nothing is wrong with what’s going into the wine cellar.

It’s trickier when you’re buying older and rare vintages of fine wines that have been around for years in someone else’s wine collection, and in storage conditions that may not be well documented or even known. In this arena, it’s paramount to forge relationships with respected brokers and auction houses with exacting standards for establishing the storage provenance of the fine wines they’re making available. And while it might be an expensive proposition, whenever possible acquire and try a bottle before buying an entire lot for the wine cellar.

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Summit Wine Cellars, LLC, (https://summit-cellars.com) offers one-stop expertise as a complete wine cellar contractor guiding both residential and commercial clients from concept and consultation through wine cellar design, fabrication and installation. Owner/designer Fred Tregaskis creates dramatic custom wine cellars for fine homes, restaurants, hotels and wineries throughout the world.

To learn more about Summit Wine Cellars, LLC, contact Summit Wine Cellars by email at info@summit-cellars.com, or by phone at 203-916-1664.