Wine 101: Wine Cellaring Conditions

Where do you keep your wine while it's waiting to be drunk? Maybe it's in your closet with your socks, or under the stairs, or maybe you have a custom cellar built in your basement.

Once the winery has bottled the wine, a period of anaerobic maturation begins. That might only last a couple of hours until you pull the cork at dinner, or if you decide the wine is worth aging, it could be a few years. The maturation is anaerobic, because oxygen doesn't have a part to play (well it does, it's just a very small part). Chemical reactions are happening between the alcohols, acids, and water. Esters are formed and then broken down which then set off more reactions, and so on. There are over 500 compounds that have been identified in the aroma of mature red wine.

The best way to mess with all these small chemical reactions inside the bottle is with light, vibrations or, most importantly, temperatures that fluctuate. In Understanding Wine Technology, David Bird writes that the specific temperature isn't all that important, but the cooler the better. The most important thing, he says, is a constant temperature. If you live in an apartment where the temperature heats up during the day and cools down at night, you're wreaking havoc on the anaerobic maturation.

How wine ages under different conditions hasn't been researched as thoroughly as you might expect. In his article, Storing wine: the effects of temperature and humidity, Jamie Goode gives us a few of the main reasons why. First, aging fine wine takes such a long time, and this means decades of boredom for scientists. Also, fine wine is very expensive and for each range of different parameters you would need another lot of expensive wine. Once you look into testing a wide range of styles, grape varieties and regions, it turns into a very complex experiment.

Most sources state the ideal temperature for aging wine is somewhere around 11 or 12 degrees Celsius. This replicates the ideal environment of an underground cellar. Chemical reactions double for every increase of 10 degrees Celsius, and new ones occur that wouldn't normally under lower temperatures.

Humidity isn't a huge factor, but conventionally, 70 percent is ideal. The main concern is that if the air is too dry, the cork will dry out and let more oxygen into the bottle. Anything higher than 70 percent, and you're going to start getting dampness and mold that won’t harm the wine, but can damage the labels.

The more you read about the science behind aging wine, the more you realize how little is actually known. If you have a dark basement where the temperatures stay constant, this will probably do. If you live in a high-rise or somewhere that heats up a lot, you might want to think about renting space at a professional wine storage facility. Then again, maybe you drink your wine fast enough that this will never be a problem.


Jake Skakun is a writer and sommelier from Vancouver, currently living in Toronto. He can be found most days pulling corks and twisting caps at the Black Hoof. He Tweets and Instagrams @jakeskakun.

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