A Guide to Storing and Maturing Wine

There’s nothing quite like taking a sip of fine, aged wine. When a wine is young, it’s born with the sweet, fruity flavours we’re all familiar with. But when you give a good bottle of wine the right environment and sufficient time, something magical happens. The evidence of this evolution is so plain and clear that you can smell it, you can see it.

After four or five years, a New Age Merlot will begin to take on subtle tastes of tobacco or vanilla. You can mature a good Pinot Noir for decades, and the unique flavour that it develops only bears description as the taste of autumn. The finest wines might outlive their creators and go on growing in depth and taste for generations. Unimaginable change can separate the person who bottles the wine and the person who drinks it, but the simple act of taking sip links these people through history.

Some of the most notable changes are the colour and aroma, red wines lose their colour while white wines become more rich and vibrant in their appearance. Sediment begins to collect in the bottom of the bottle, and it has a rich story to share. They tell the story of millions of compounds joining together and breaking apart again at the molecular level, driving a fundamental transformation in the nature of what that bottle of wine is. In the same way that we all grow in personality and experience as we live, a wine grows closer to manifesting its true self as it ages.

A Heritage as Old as Time

Of course, it’s correct to say that a bottle of wine is a piece of history. A special bottle that one person stores for a few decades would have been a bystander for so much of their life. There are even rare, 19th century Madeiras that were quietly evolving in flavour from the Victorian era through to the blitz and on to today. But even that’s only skimming the surface of the amount of time people have been cultivating and maturing wine.

We even know that the oldest winery that archaeologists have identified as such is older than the Roman Empire. When you enjoy wine, you’re sharing a rich, universal heritage that spans most cultures in history. This is doubly true if you mature your own wine, which is blessedly easy in our modern world. Even if you don’t have space for a traditional cellar, you still have ways to partake in the magic of storing and maturing wine.

red grapes

Should You Age a Wine, and for How Long

Most wines have nothing to gain from ageing and will never taste better than the day you’ve bought them. On the other hand, a select few can spend a lifetime growing, evolving, and developing an ever-richer flavour. Between these extremes, there are wines that are best aged for 10, seven, five, or three years.

The possibility for ageing depends on the specific wine and the manufacturer. New World Merlot, the average Pinot Blanc, and Negroamaro do best in three to five years of ageing. Old World Merlot and Chianti can mature for up to a decade, and fine French Chardonnay white wines might stay in the cellar for twenty years.

Fine red Burgundy and Bordeaux wines generally need a minimum of 12 years to reach their very best and will continue to evolve for some ears or even decades

Sweet wines, thanks to the preservative effect of their sugar content, can be aged for an especially long time. The only wines that are suitable for ageing for more than two to three decades are fortified wines, which have an unfathomable potential for growth. Wine enthusiasts have reported opening bottles of Tawny Port that outlived the original owner and found them to have a vibrant, full, yet nuanced taste.

The Key to Wonderful Wine

The key to ageing wine properly is creating ideal, carefully controlled environmental conditions. Most important of all is temperature, as excessive heat will spoil the growth process too much cold will slow it, while fluctuations between the two do the most harm. Besides that, darkness and physical stability are important, as light and movement can disrupt the ageing process. The last and most contentious piece of the puzzle is ambient humidity, which some wine experts swear by while others dismiss it.

With all of these criteria, the natural place to store wine is underground in a cellar. Below-ground spaces already have stable temperatures and high humidity, not to mention protection from light. However, many people live in apartments or their homes don’t have a suitable underground space for wine storage. Thankfully, with modern wine fridges, it’s now possible to create the conditions for wine to age perfectly, whether you want to age five bottles, 500, or even 5,000.

Of course, even if you opt for a wine cooler to store wine, it’s still helpful to understand the ageing process. Only a small minority of wines are suitable for ageing, and the steps you’ll take are going to vary depending on how you want to age your wine. Ageing a wine for a few years to enhance its flavour can be a good decision, or you might want to let it mature for decades. Either way, if you’re interested in storing and maturing your own wine, here’s everything you need to know.

How Wine Matures

When you drink a standard young wine, the flavour is fairly simple and overpoweringly fruity. This is particularly true of rosé and wines that have low levels of tannins. The tannins role in wine is to make it more bitter and produce the dry-mouth sensation that many red wines have.

When a wine matures, it changes on a molecular level as the tannins lose their molecular charge and combine with one another. As the years go by, you can even see the evidence of this process with the naked eye. As the tannins combine, they become too large and heavy to float in the wine, at which point they drift to the bottom of the bottle as sediment. In this way, aging a wine serves to soften the flavour and unveil rich, unique tastes. Some aged wines are known to have subtle tastes of chamomile, steak, sour cherry and roses…

Of course, the softening of the tannins is only one change that occurs. Interactions between natural sugars, acids, alcohol, and other compounds all serve to enrich the subtle flavours that young wines hide. Wine is almost a living thing, and it will grow and evolve on its own if you only give it the time and environment to do so.

The Right Temperature for Wine

Wines have a complex relationship with temperature, with a safe range from 4.5 to 18.5°C. For storing wine, 12-13°C is generally ideal. This slows down the ageing process and gives your wine time to mature. Given years, it will transform into something that only time can create.

However, you might consider storing your wine at an even lower temperature if you intend to keep it for decades. Likewise, warmer temperatures can be suitable for wines that you’ll only mature for a short period of time.

After all, high-grade wines that take seven years or a decade to reach their potential aren’t the only wines that bear ageing. Even middle-grade wines that you’ve sourced from a good winery can improve from maturing for three to five years, although they lack the depth to go any further. Since attempting to age these wines any longer would actually be detrimental, temperatures up to 18 degrees can be suitable for them.

While it’s one thing to know what the ideal temperature for wine is, it’s another entirely to be able to consistently maintain that temperature. The average basement isn’t going to be sufficiently deep or well-insulated to maintain a steady temperature, and environmental concerns also factor in. Before investing in valuable wines, measure the temperature of your cellar for a prolonged period of time and look into cellar conditioning solutions if necessary. Or choose a specialist wine fridge to create the ideal temperature.

wine bottles

The Importance of Light and Motion

While the relationship between wine and heat is complex, the role of light in wine maturation is blessedly simple. That is to say, it’s unambiguously bad for your wine. While a splash of light isn’t going to ruin a bottle, strong light will. For one, light carries heat energy and sunlight can heat up the bottles, disrupting the temperature of your wine. But even light without heat can interfere with the complex, molecular-level changes that drive the maturing process. 

Excessive shaking and heavy vibrations can shift larger tannin bonds and sediment, which can change the flavour of your wine in an undesirable way. While your wine is maturing, you need to be sure to store it in a dark, physically stable space.

Managing Humidity

While high humidity is generally a good thing when storing wine, there is a limit to this. However, this isn’t so much for the sake of your wine as much as the place where you’re storing it. Humidity above 70% can degrade labels and glue, not to mention the risk of mould growth.

You should always keep humidity below 70% to avoid mould growth and glue breakdown. While humidity above 50% is ideal, this is more important while the wine is in the barrel and becomes less important when ageing bottled wine. By keeping ambient humidity high, you keep evaporation through the cork or wood at a minimal level. However, you don’t really need to worry about the cork drying out.

People have long held that high humidity is important to keep corks from shrinking. If a cork dries out and shrinks, then more air will enter the bottle and cause excessive oxidization. However, studies have found this is untrue because of the extremely high humidity in the bottle. In the space between the cork and the wine, humidity approaches 100%, and this keeps the cork moist. Not only that, but the humidity is adequate for compounds to travel from the cork into the wine even when the bottle stands upright. On that note, it isn’t necessary to store a wine bottle on its side.

wine barrels

Wine Storage Myths

The unfounded fear of corks drying out ties into another wine storage myth. Many people believe that you need to periodically rotate your bottle of wine as it ages, to keep the cork evenly moist. However, this action solves a problem that doesn’t exist and creates real ones. Namely, rotating a bottle risks disrupting the sediment and causing a host of problems.

Likewise, there’s no reason to store wine on its side. The high humidity present in the air bubble prevents a cork from drying out. In reality, constant contact between the acids present in wine and the cork can accelerate cork decay and increase the oxidization of your wine. Of course, storing wine on its side has a venerable history and has produced many wonderful wines. As such, the point is more that storing vertically and horizontally are both valid options.

The Right Place to Store Your Wine

There are two types of wine cellars used for maturing wine; active and passive. An active cellar is one where the temperature is controlled by a mechanical device, in other words, a wine fridge, wine cooler or wine cabinet. The best passive cellars are usually, underground creating constant temperatures. Lucky readers will own a home that has an old wine cellar just waiting for you to restore it to its former glory. For the rest of us thankfully, it’s easier than ever to find space to mature your own wine, even if you don’t have a cellar. 

Active Cellars

Wine Storage Solutions offer a wide range of active cellars that recreate all of the necessary conditions to store and mature your own wine. We have several choices available that each offer differences in capability, volume, and functionality.

Single Temperature v Dual Temperature Wine Fridges

Larger freestanding or integrated single temperature wine fridges are ideal for the long-term storage of larger collections of wine and can be used to keep reds, whites and sparkling wines safely stored at a temperature of around 13°C.

Dual-temperature wine fridges have two separate temperature zones and are designed to keep the whites/sparkling wines at an ideal serving temperature of 7 degrees Celsius and the reds at a perfect serving temperature 17 degrees Celsius.

Walk-in Wine Cellars

If you have a garage, barn, outhouse or even a large shed, you can install a walk-in wine cellar. These cellars are formed from insulated panels and are supplied with a cellar conditioning unit, racking and lighting.They are completely self-contained and require no plumbing or drainage.Delivered flat-packed, they can be easily installed in almost any location and recreate those ideal conditions found in a traditional underground wine cellar.An ideal environment for maturing wine, with the space to store many bottles and/or cases. Available in four sizes, starting at a capacity of upt to 990 bottles, the largest walk-in wine cellar can satisfy most wine collector’s requirements with capacity of over 4,000 bottles. Whether you’re an ambitious wine lover or intend to age bottles of wine for investment purposes, a walk-in wine cellar makes it easy.