Storing wine underground is a practice that goes back thousands of years. In fact, take a trip to Reims, France, and you can explore some enormous ancient Roman wine cellars, still in use today as Champagne cellars.
But why store wine underground?
In this article of our Explained series, we’ll explore the two main reasons for cellaring wine, what cellars achieve, and whether a wine cellar is something you really need to invest in if you want to enjoy good wine.
(Hint: it isn’t)
Reason One: Storage
The first reason for cellaring wine is a simple one: long-term storage (say two years and up).
Wine is an organic product, and like other organic products it can degrade or spoil from prolonged exposure to heat, light, or oxygen.
What do spoilage and degradation taste like?
- Overcooked, raisiny flavors
- Funky, sulfurous, cabbage flavors
- Bitter, woody tastes of corked wine
- Dull, muted flavors and a loss of complexity
- Vinegary, oxidized wine
Generally, all flavors that are better avoided!
Because they're built underground (above-ground “cellars” are known as wine rooms or wine closets), wine cellars generally maintain cool temperatures, minimal light, and air that’s humid enough to keep corks from drying out and cracking, but dry enough to prevent mold and mildew.
Fun fact: the reason you generally store wine on its side is to keep the cork from drying out and letting air in. The wine nestles up against the cork, imparting moisture if it ever gets too dry.
Don't have a wine cellar for storage? No need to fret. Unless you're planning to keep your wine for extensive years, your bottles should be safe anywhere that's dark, relatively cool, and free from vibration or physical shocks.
Reason two: Aging
Store your wine long enough and it’ll eventually mature into an aged wine. But before you run to put your bottles in the cellar, a few things we should clear up!
- While aging changes a wine, it doesn't necessarily improve it.
- Most wines aren't meant to be aged. It's estimated that 90% of wine produced should be consumed within a year, and 99% within five years.
- There’s a strong correlation between the age-worthiness of a wine and its classification under the French appellation system. [link to classifications of Burgundy wine article] Grand and Premier Cru wines - which comprise most of BurgDirect’s offerings - generally benefit and improve with several years of aging, while village and regional wines are usually best consumed young.
What happens when wine is aged?
From the moment a wine is bottled (and quite some time before in fact), a whole series of chemical reactions begin taking place between the sugars, acids, and phenolic flavor compounds (like tannins) in the bottle. This is a slow and subtle process, but over time they alter the character of a wine quite dramatically.
The first thing to go is fruitiness, retreating noticeably within a year. As time goes on, tannins soften and mellow out, acidity diminishes, and ‘tertiary’ aromas begin to develop as molecules inside the bottle mix and match to form new flavor compounds.
Fun fact: "tertiary" aromas are those that emerge from aging, and come from the reactions among different phenolic compounds in the wine. For reds, think leather, tobacco, mushroom, earth, and other savory aromas. For white wines, think straw, honey, almonds, and surprisingly pleasant aromas reminiscent of gasoline. As the flavors of fresh fruit recede, these new aromas develop and grow in prominence.
Whether destined for immediate consumption or a ten year trip to the cellar, all wine eventually reaches a point of optimal maturity where flavor, structure, mouthfeel, acidity and aroma are in perfect balance. This stage can last a few months or several years, and is somewhat a matter of personal taste. Beyond a certain point though, the wine inevitably begins to deteriorate.
What makes wine suitable for aging?
As tannins and acidity diminish over time, age-worthy wines must have tannins and acidity to spare. Not only do these act as preservatives, but they maintain a structure and coherence to the aged wine, which would otherwise grow flabby, flat and insipid over time.
White wines, which generally include less tannins, can be a little more difficult to age than reds, but sufficient acidity and sweetness can often overcome the lack of that phenolic compound. Failing that, barrel-aging can also impart tannins to a white wine, helping to preserve it into its mature years.
As mentioned above, residual sugars are another form of preservative, so wines on the sweeter side are also a safer bet. And finally, wines lower in alcohol tend to be a little more stable and predictable during the aging process, allowing the wine to mature gracefully.
(Fortified wines like port, in which distilled spirits are added, tend to have the longest shelf life of all.)
Should you invest in a wine cellar?
While wine cellars are undeniably cool, they aren’t really necessary for the vast majority of wine drinkers. If you live in a relatively cool climate and plan to drink your wine within a year or two, a dark cupboard in a quiet area is generally sufficient; even better if you can lay the bottles sideways in a wine rack.
For those of you living in hot climates things are a little more tricky, but there’s no need to give up hope. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a basement, you can set up a little wine rack in a quiet corner to replicate the effects of a wine cellar, and if you have the means you can invest in a small wine fridge.
You can also try storing wine in your refrigerator for a few months, but try to keep it sideways if you can. Fridges have very dry air, which can cause your cork to dry out and crack, and your wine to spoil. (This is less of a problem if you’re drinking capped wine, or using a synthetic cork.)
If you’re dying to sample matured wines but don’t have the right conditions for aging it yourself, keep an eye on our offers [link to offers page if this isn’t too salesly] page. BurgDirect frequently includes wines from past vintages [link to vintages - explained], aged in the producers own cellars, in our wine bundles. The result is aged wine ready for near-immediate consumption without the expense of a personal wine cellar or cabinet.
If you have any other questions or concerns about storing and aging wine, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy drinking!