Many wines will improve with time, even in the bottle. Young red wines can be overly harsh but with some time in the bottle a pleasant evolution will take place. Tannins will soften and become more approachable, aromas will evolve and become more complex, and an increase in texture on the tongue can occur. For this reason it makes sense to hold on to the more intense red wines for a few years. Most reds will age gracefully for five to seven years and some can improve for decades but only with the right storage conditions. Improperly storing a wine for years will result in an oxidative self destruction and the result can be especially heinous. Nail polish remover, vinegar, and sherry are some common descriptors you might think of when things go wrong.
Here are some general guidelines to get you started with wine storage.
If your bottle uses a cork enclosure, the proper orientation to store the wine is sideways. Natural cork can dry out over time and allow air to permeate into the wine. Storing a bottle on its side will keep the cork wet and assure that the bottle stays sealed. You can also store the wine upside down if you have one of those fancy pants racks. If you don't yet have a wine rack, you can use an empty wine box turned on the side. Think about getting a wine rack though...
Cool and consistent is the name of the game with wine storage temperature. The ideal temperature for wine storage is in the 55° to 60°F range. Every 10 degrees warmer will nearly double the rate of aging and make it difficult to hold on to a wine for many years. If you are planning to drink the wine in two or three years, then don't fret too much if you are closer to the 70°F range but make sure the temperature is consistent. Fluctuation in temperature causes expansion and contraction of the wine and can slowly pump air in and out of the bottle and push wine up the edges of the cork. This leads to the dreaded oxidation and you don't want it. Keep your wine rack away from heater vents or radiators. If you have a basement, it is going to be your best bet for storage conditions in general.
*NEVER forget your wine in the car on a hot day. Temperatures over 90°F can lead to what is referred to as "cooked wine" and turn the complex aromatics into smells of stewed fruit or raisins.
50 to 70% humidity will do the job for wine storage. The goal, once again is to keep the corks from drying out. The basement should fall within this window for most months of the year, unless you live on the north pole. For those of you living on or near the north pole (Kris Kringle), consider a humidifier if you have a wine collection of value. An inexpensive hygrometer will measure both temperature and humidity in the storage area.
Keep your wine rack out of direct sunlight. Most red wine bottles are dark green to shade the wine, so it doesn't have to be pitch dark in your storage area. Direct UV exposure can cause a breakdown of the compounds that make the wine so enjoyable.
Vibration can speed up the subtle chemical reactions caused during aging and can disturb any sediment that has fallen out of an older bottle. Don't put your wine rack on the top of your washing machine.
To Age or not to Age
Not all wines are expected to improve with age. With the exception of a few Rieslings and Chardonnays, most white wines are intended to be drank within one or two years and generally will not improve in the bottle. Sweet wines follow the same rules. Red wines that are low in tannin are meant to be drank young but can still hang in there for a few years. Big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel etc. can age very well for many years (5 to 15). Many French and Italian red wines are actually intended to be cellared for several years before drinking.
In general wines with good aging potential share the following characteristics.
1. Moderate to High Tannin
2. Good Flavor Intensity
3. Adequate Alcohol (>13%)
4. Adequate Acid (pH3.5-3.7)
5. No off flavors or flaws
Without much effort, most people should be able to find a place worthy of storing wine. It is hard to beat a basement for those who have one. You can see that most aging related issues relate to keeping the cork intact. It is no surprise that even many premium wines are now using screw top enclosures, and expect to see more in the coming years.
Read Next: Improving Color in Red Wine
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