Did you know that constant humidity in a cellar is important to keep corks from drying out?
To get wine experts to agree on the right temperature you should store wine is like pulling teeth out. I know one collector who has his cellar dialed to a precise 55 degrees at all times, and is convinced his bottles will spoil if the temperature spikes by even 5 degrees. Yet I know another collector who was born and raised on a Languedoc vineyard, and who believes that as long as her cellar stays relatively damp and cool, the precise temperature doesn’t matter. Who is right? The truth is that the temperature at which you should store your wine and the ideal humidity of your wine cellar depend on how long you expect to store your wine and your location’s natural climate.
The Ideal Temperature to Store Wine
Most experts agree that temperatures ranging between 53 and 57 degrees are great for wine storage, regardless of whether you’re storing a bold California Cabernet Sauvignon or a delicate Alsace Pinot Gris. It’s a myth that red and white wines need to be stored at different temperatures for their entire lives; if you see a dual-zone wine refrigerator that separates reds from whites, it’s only because white wine is supposed to be served at cooler temperatures than red wine. You can store all of your varietals long-term in one spot without impacting their quality–you’ll just want to stick whites in an ice bath for a few minutes before drinking, since cellar temperature isn’t quite cool enough.
Although a storage climate of 53 to 57 degrees will work for all varietals, some experts claim that your cellar can climb into the mid-60s without negatively affecting certain wines (as long as you plan on drinking them within a few years). However, keeping your wine at a constant 55 degrees is best for bottles that you want to age for decades, since any exposure to raised temperatures over the long-term could result in a cooked wine that tastes flat. Similarly, if your cellar dips below 45 degrees, you could also ruin your wine. Air becomes dry at lower temperatures, which causes the cork to shrink and the wine to leak or oxidize. The basic guideline is as long as your cellar is under 70 degrees and above 45 degrees, your wine should be safe from serious damage over the short-term (a few years).
How to Effectively Cool Your Cellar
When it comes to choosing the best temperature to store your wine, consistency is more important than anything else. My friend from Languedoc doesn’t fret over small dips and spikes in temperature because her cellar consistently stays between 55 and 60 degrees on its own. You’ll only start to see damage if your cellar’s temperature increases or decreases by more than 10 degrees in a short period of time. When this happens, the cork expands and contracts, which causes oxidation. Invest in an accurate thermometer to make sure your wine stays within 10 degrees of your ideal range at all times.
To keep temperatures steady all year, you’ll need to install insulation and you’ll either need your cellar zoned separately from the rest of the house or you’ll need to install a dedicated cooling unit. You’ll also want to build your home cellar without windows to keep the climate under control (and avoid exposing your wine to UV light). Next, use an outdoor-grade door that seals your cellar off from the rest of your home. If you live in a relatively cool climate, or your cellar is underground, you may not need to actively cool it. In this case, you’ll want to focus on insulation and thick, weather-stripped doors to keep the cellar at the right temperature.
Finding the Right Humidity Balance
Unfortunately, cold air from cooling units tends to leave your cellar abnormally dry. To combat this, you’ll need to use a humidifier to keep corks supple, or make sure your cooling unit is equipped with a built-in humidifier. Either way, you’ll want to link the two units together so that they work in conjunction. I’ve seen humidifiers destroy thousands of dollars of wine in a matter of days because the humidifier couldn’t accurately measure the humidity in the room. I visited a cellar that was so humid that water started to drip from the ceiling; nearly all of the bottle labels had peeled off from the excess moisture, making them worthless.
Wine experts still aren’t sure what the ideal humidity level is for wine, but Jancis Robinson says 75 percent humidity is a good starting point for most cellars. Your perfect humidity level will vary depending on the climate conditions of your cellar, such as whether you have windows and how tightly your cellar is sealed off from the rest of the house. If you don’t have a cooling unit because your cellar stays naturally cool, a humidifier might be overkill. In this case, Alexis Lichine recommends spreading a half inch of gravel on the floor of your cellar, and sprinkling it with water every few days.
It’s important to work with what you already have; don’t force your naturally-60-degree wine cave to stay at 55 degrees, especially when the humidity is already ideal. That 5-degree difference won’t destroy your wine, and you’ll have to work hard to achieve it. Instead, create a cellar cooling system that allows you to relax, keeping your bottles safe with minimal effort on your part.
By: Derek Cienfuegos