How to Store a Wine Collection

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

If you’ve decided to collect wine — or if you discover that a wine collection is happening to you — please take heed: Poorly stored wines make disappointment after disappointment inevitable.

If you plan to keep wines indefinitely, you really need a wine storage facility with controlled temperature and humidity. This is especially important if you live where the temperature exceeds 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) for any length of time.

Without proper storage, you may be tempted to drink those fine wines long before they reach their best drinking period (known in wine circles as infanticide), or worse yet, the wines may die an untimely death in your closet, garage, or warm cellar.

If you plan to build a wine cellar or buy a wine cabinet, allow for expansion in your wine collection.

The passive wine cellar

You may be fortunate enough to have conditions suitable for a passive wine cellar (if you live in the cool Northeastern United States or in Canada, if your cellar is below ground and not heated, or if you’ve recently inherited a castle in Scotland, for example.)

If the place where you intend to store your wine is very cool year-round (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 15.5 degrees Celsius) and very damp (75 percent humidity or higher), you can be the lucky owner of a passive cellar. (It’s called passive because you don’t have to do anything to it, such as cool it or humidify it.)

Usually, only deep cellars completely below ground level with thick stones or comparable insulation can be completely passive in temperate climates. Passive cellars are certainly the ideal way to store wines. And you can save a lot of money on their upkeep to boot.

If you don’t have a space that’s already ideal for a passive wine cellar, you might decide that you can dig one. For instructions on building your own passive wine cellar, see Richard M. Gold’s authoritative book, How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar (Board and Bench Publishing).

If you can’t be passive, be bullish

Most wine collectors are neither lucky enough to have a passive wine cellar nor fortunate enough to be able to create one without extraordinary expense and trouble. But second best — a mechanically cooled and/or humidified room — is far better than a laissez-faire approach.

The following are key features of a good wine storage area:

  • The temperature stays cool — ideally, in the 53 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit range (12 to 16 degrees Celsius).

  • The temperature is fairly constant; wide swings in temperature aren’t good for the wine.

  • The area is damp or humid, with a minimum of 70 percent humidity and a maximum of 95 percent (mold sets in above 95 percent).

  • The area is free from vibrations, which can travel through the wine; heavy traffic and motors cycling on and off — such as in refrigerators — are detrimental to your wine.

  • The area is free from light, especially direct sunlight; the ultraviolet rays of the sun are especially harmful to wine.

  • The storage area is free from chemical odors, such as paints, paint remover, and so on.

Whatever area you use, your wine will keep well provided that the space has a climate control unit and is properly insulated.

Buy a hygrometer for your wine storage area. A good can hygrometer can give a both the percentage of humidity and a digital reading of the temperature.

Avoid refrigerators for wine storage. Don’t leave good wine or Champagne in the refrigerator for more than a week; not only is the refrigerator motor harmful, but the excessively cold temperature (as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.6 degrees Celsius) tends to numb and flatten the flavors of the wine.

Climate control

You can find professional cooling devices advertised in wine accessory catalogs and wine magazines. These climate-control units humidify and cool the air of a room. They come in various capacities to suit rooms of different dimensions. Many require professional installation.

Depending on where you live, you may not need to run your cooling unit all year. Consider following the local seasons if the temperature is accurate.

Wine racks

Racking systems vary from elaborate redwood racks to simple metal or plastic types. The choice of material and configuration really hinges on how much you want to spend and your own personal taste.

Large, diamond-shaped wooden (or synthetic composition) racks are popular because they efficiently store eight or more bottles per section and make maximum use of space. Such racks permit the easy removal of individual bottles.

A rack configuration that gives each wine its own cubbyhole is more expensive; if you’re checking out such racks, consider whether any of your oversized bottles may be too large to fit the cubbyholes.

Some collectors prefer to store their wine in the wines’ original wooden crates. (You can also usually pick up empty wooden crates in wine stores.) The crates are beneficial for storing wine because the wine remains in a dark environment inside the case, and the temperature changes very slowly thanks to the mass of wine bottles packed together in the closed case. Retrieving a bottle from the bottom row of the case can really be inconvenient, though.

Cardboard boxes aren’t suitable for wine storage. The chemicals used in the manufacture of the cardboard can eventually affect the wine. Also, the cardboard boxes become damaged, in time, from the moisture in the air, assuming that you’re maintaining a proper humidity in your cellar.

Insulation

Far more important than your choice of racks is your choice of insulation.

Fiberglass insulation is not recommended because it absorbs the moisture created by your cooling unit.

The ideal insulation is a 3-inch-thick, thermoplastic resin called polyurethane. It’s odorless, doesn’t absorb moisture, and makes a fine seal. Even when a cooling unit isn’t running, temperatures will change extremely slowly in most wine rooms with this kind of insulation.