Sunday, 23 June 2013

Storing wine - From cupboard to cabinet.

Ideal wine storage conditions are not really set in stone, that is unless you have a traditional cellar space below your mansion! I have this problem, and as a result I embarked on a few months of research into how i should store my little collecion of bottles. I simply did a lot of google searches, and routed through the books i have at home. lots of information is out there, and most of it is in reasonable agreement. I'm going to try to elaborate on my findings for those who wish to read on...

The old way to do it then, is to have a cellar. How many years have wine makers and merchants been storing wine underground? I'd wager a long time. So why not stick with this? The simple reason is that not everyone has a lovely basement. This means that most people who wish to look after their wines for a long time (lets say keeping for more than 2-3+ years before drinking) need to find alternative solutions. The ideal conditions for long term wine storage should, therefore, be those of an underground cellar. These have been found by lots of individuals monitoring their own space and presumably sharing that knowledge. The consensus seems to be: a dark space with a temperature somewhere between 12 and 14 degrees C and around 70% humidity. These are benchmark figures quoted very often. The degree of change in these figures should also be kept to a minimum. For example, a cellar will probably increase in temperature between the seasons. 11 degrees in the winter up to 15 degrees in the height of summer. As long as this change occurs very slowly, there shouldn't be an issue. In fact, there are some out there who say that this natural flux is important in the aging process of wine. Problems arise when the temperature and humidity of a storage space fluctuate by such margins over shorter periods of time. If, during a single day, the temperature fluctuates by 5+ degrees, most likely between day and night, then the wine, and cork, expand and contract much too quickly. This may then lead to a leaky cork. A perturbation of the cork's seal, through such push-pull forces, or the cork drying out due to low humidity, will lead to air infiltrating the bottle and spoiling of the wine through unwanted oxidation. The result will be, at worst, undrinkable vinegar!

Apart form fluctuations, what happens when the temperatures are too low or too high? If i'm honest i've found very little information on this. If the temperature is too high, over 20-22 dgerees C, for an extended period (days to weeks) then the wine will 'cook'. The flavours of the wine will turn to those of cooked food. This means stewed or jammy fruit flavours instead of fresh ripe fruits. I haven't experienced this, so i'm not entirely sure what that would taste like, but it's not what the winemaker intended. All I've learned about low temperatures is simply that it is bad, and freezing will probably push the cork out of the bottle!

It seems to be a general rule, and makes scientific sense, that the warmer the temperature, the faster the aging process. You may think then, that you could enjoy 20 years of aging in half the time, if you keep the wine at a warmer temperature. Unfortuneately that's not the case. The aging process requires desirable degradation of molecules in the wine and occurs slowly at lower temperatures in a cellar. The molecules in question are the preservatives in wine that help it age. These included the tannins and phenolic compounds obtained from the skins, seeds and stalks of the grapes. This is a subject i am currently reading about and way to complex to go into now! Anyway, these chemical processes are sped-up as the temperature rises. The problem is, that there are other chemical processes, very unwanted ones, that  start to occur as the temperature goes up. The unwanted reactions also replace the good ones, which compounds the issue. Again, there is much more detail required here, that i do not know yet. As such i shall stop there and say that with wine, slow and steady wins the race.

Aside from temperature and humidity, other storage considerations include: light, vibrations and air quality. UV light, from sunshine and domestic bulbs, increases the rates of chemical reactions and degradations,  in a similar way to high temperatures, therefore are most unwanted. It is thought that vibrations can also act as a catalyst to unwanted chemical reactions withing the wine. More importantly, vibrations stir up the naturally occuring sediment in the wine, which prevents the wine aging properly. So if you live near a railway line or busy road, look elsewhere for your site of storage. Finally, it is thought that nasty smells and odours can infiltrate the wine through the porous cork. Therefore don't store your wines in a shed near a pig farm. Also, do not store them in a musty box in the dogs room!

So to my personal experience. After learning all of this, i decided to see how it went with what i had. I have a cupboard upstairs that is dark and cool and not often ventured into. I decided to store my wines in there, on their side in wooden cases. Storing wine on it's side is said to aid in keeping the cork moist and in shape. This cupboard is not insulated, and is nothing special, but it's a space i had. After a couple of months I was starting to get paranoid about the cupboard. The weather outside was funny this year and fluctuated between hot and cold on a weekly basis. I decided that a £7, combined thermometer and hygrometer (humididty monitor), was a good investment. I started to monitor my 'cellar' by recording the maxmium and minumum temperatures and humidities in every 24 hours. My gadget also had a probe at the end of a couple of meters of cable. This meant I could monintor the ambient stats in the cupboard AND the stats in the middle of the wines. This was good for me. It reassured me that the wines were in no immediate danger. The daily temperature fluctuations were no more that a couple of degrees and the larger changes occured over many days. What was not surprising was that the conditions in the cupboard correlated very well with that of the outside weather. If we had a warm snap, then the cupboard would warm a bit. If it went cold, the cupboard would cool. This is most probably down to a lack of insulation and that the cupboard is on an outside wall.

Everything was fine, and I'd been monitoring the 'cellar' for about 6 months. I used to get so frustrated if I forgot to check the temp and humidity. The monitor clears itself every day at midnight. Ironically, I usually forgot because I'd had a couple of glasses of wine and I'd rolled in to bed without thinking! The changes in conditions followed the seasons, this was ok at the time. I kept an eye on things, and logged all my data in a spreadsheet (remember I'm a science nerd!). I created a running average to give myself an idea of how the actual wine might be behaving in bottle. It should take a day or two for 750 mL to equillibrate to a change in temp, especially ones so small. By now you must have guessed that something would go wrong! So... about a month-or-so ago, things changed. The summer arrived at last and we had a 2-week spell of hot weather, with outside temperatures in the mid-twenties. As could be predicted (good-old science!), conditions in the cupboard followed the trend. Alarmingly, it only took a couple of days for the cupboard temps to get up to 21 or 22 degrees C. As I've mentioned above, this is bad, and I was panicking! After speaking to my wife about it (she'd spotted the wrinckles in my forehead just after checking the wines), she said that it was ok for me to investigate other methods of storage.....

Yippee!! Although I knew we don't have that much money to be spending on this, I was immensely relieved to have her understanding. After all, I could have been risking hundreds (almost thousands) of pounds-worth of wine investment. This is aside from the personal, emotional investment I'd put in to selecting which wines I wanted and the fact that many were presents. The only real option for me was a wine cabinet. At the top end, these are vastly expensive. Eurocave is the big-name brand, and can cost up to £10,000!! For that you could dig a hole and build a large cellar under your house, so what's the point!? Most make sense though. They are fridge-sized lumps that maintain the ideal conditions for storing wine (having read this far, you know all that now, right?). I scoured the internet for a couple of days, I had in fact looked into this previously and so had a good starting position. For example, I knew that a brand-new Eurocave or Liebherr was WAY out of my reach. This was OK. I reckoned on snatching a cheap, used something, from ebay or similar source. As it turned out, I found that if you don't care about the brand, or neccessarily the looks, then getting a new wine cabinet may be an option. I also found that because of the aforementioned reasons, the catering industry is an excellent place to look. You have to be careful and read the detailed descriptions of the products, becasue a simple wine fridge is exactly what it sounds like. There are many cheap models that simply cool the contents like a normal fridge. These do not consider humidity or vibrations, and in fact cool the interior in an entirely incorrect way. As far as I know, a normal fridge basically blasts cool air in to the interior space. A more appropriate wine cooler/cabinet should gently cool the air using elements distrubuted evenly though the interior. It should also maintain humidity, filter the air using something like a charcoal filter and make use of a low vibration compressor, mounted on rubber dampeners. Wood shelves are also better than metal ones for vibration dampening, apparently.

So, a very long story short (sorry about this post being so long btw, I'll try to be more concise in future. I'm new to all this remember!). I found a wine cabinet from a Danish brand, called Vestfrost. I found it on a catering website run by a company based in my city. They also had a quite large model (116 bottle) on special offer at 50 % off!! After also finding a coupon code online for an additional 5 % off I paid £540 for a great cabinet, delivered to my door! The cabinet maintains a constant temp, has a low vibration compressor (including rubber thingies), a charcoal filter and a smoked/tinted glass door. The only thing it doesn't control is the humidity. I figured this isn't the end of the world because I live in the UK and the humidity is normally between 50 and 70 % naturally, which is OK. The bottles also look great, though the glass door, sat on lovely wooden shelves. Having been told that whatever size collection you think you want, you should treble that number when considering capacity. So holding 116 bottles should be sufficient for this cabinet, for a while at least.

This all contributes to what I have said in previous posts. If you're willing to put in a bit of effort, investigate the situation and learn about what you NEED, then collecting wine does not have to be reserved for the rich. I know that the sums of money I'm talking about here are still large to some, but I hope I can assure the reader that I am not loaded and what I refer to, for the majority, is at the budget end of the fine wine world! I also hope that the drivel I spout can be of use to someone in need of it. Thanks for reading to end!

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