Perhaps it was on that perfect day in Tuscany when your host brought out a prized bottle of 20-year-old Brunello di Montalcino, and you noticed layer after layer of aroma and flavor as the wine developed in the glass.
Maybe it was that time in Napa, just after you joined that winery’s club when the tasting room associate opened a bottle of their “library reserve” collection, fifteen years old, and you noticed the usually dark, massively tannic Cabernet had evolved to a perfectly balanced, ruby red, a sip of hedonism.
Or was it that dinner with your college roommate when you complained about the high price of a Bordeaux, and she replied with, “Oh, I bought that in a futures program years ago at one-fifth the price you see here.”
Wine Cellar Essentials
Whenever you came to it, at some point, you decided to collect and age wines, and now you are a serious wine collector. And that means applying the same rigor you use to select wines to your wine storage approach.
For wines to age well and evolve, proper storage is essential, and that means ensuring several requirements are met. The ideal wine storage area is a cool, dark space with some humidity that doesn’t transmit vibrations. Here are the basics of building a wine cellar.
The ideal temperature for storing wine is generally agreed to be 55 degrees F, though a range from 50 to 59 degrees is acceptable. The important point is that the temperature is relatively constant; large, quick fluctuations can be detrimental for wine.
The ideal humidity for long-term wine storage is 60-65%. Even with bottles lying on their side, one side of the cork is exposed to air under the capsule. If the cork dries out, the wine can become oxidized. If the humidity is too high, labels can become damaged, making identification difficult and potentially lowering the re-sale price. As with temperature, rapid, large fluctuations in humidity are undesirable.
Wines exposed to strong sunlight or incandescent light can deteriorate rapidly.
As red wines age, they may drop sediment (pigmented tannins). These wines need to be handled carefully and possibly decanted so the sediment doesn’t re-enter the wine. One study indicates that constant vibration can affect the volume of acids and tannins in wine. Therefore, it is important that the storage area be vibration-free to ensure that the sediment is allowed to precipitate out of, and stay out of, the wine. Sources of vibration include public transportation systems such as trains and subways, as well as home appliances such as washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators.
Building a Wine Cellar or Storage Area
Choose Your Location
Evaluate your chosen location for THLV: temperature, humidity, light, and vibration
Temperature: Is the location above or underground? Temperature swings between the seasons and even between day and night make outdoor locations less than ideal in many parts of the world. Regulating temperature requires heat exchange equipment, typically for a room, an HVAC system is used.
Humidity: Temperature and humidity go hand in hand. As the temperature fluctuates up or down, humidity or relative humidity RH (water vapor percentage of the air against what it could hold if it were saturated) follows suit.
Light: Too much natural lighting can be harmful; avoid spaces and areas where there is a lot of natural light.
Vibration: Is there a railway line close by—or even common household appliances—that could send vibrations through the earth or walls and into your equipment and wine?
Understand the importance of environment: Location will affect four environmental factors: temperature, humidity, light, and vibration (THLV), which are critical to successful wine storage over time. Understanding the environment of the location is, therefore, key to the successful installation of your wine. Evaluate your location options using the lens of the four critical factors. Choose a location that is minimally affected by changes to these four factors in the environment. This will limit the amount of work and equipment or technology required to regulate the four critical factors.
Choose Regulatory Equipment
Temperature and Humidity: When regulating the entire space, careful consideration should be given to insulating materials, including thermal insulation and vapor barrier. One advantage of wine fridges is that these layers of insulation are already built into the lining of the fridge walls.
Temperature-controlling equipment HVAC systems are readily available but will require a professional to calculate and determine what size and model will be required. This is a function of the size of the space, environmental factors, duty cycle, and target temperature.
If you choose to install fridges in your space, it is still recommended an HVAC system be installed. Fridges expel hot air into their surrounding environment. As with any system, an equilibrium point will be reached. The more heat expelled into space by the fridges, the more cooling will be required by the fridge equipment, and so the cycle continues until a point of equilibrium is reached. Installing an HVAC system will greatly help and also will make the space more comfortable to be in and enjoy a glass.
Vibration: Although dampeners can be used to limit vibration transmissions from the environment, the best solution is to avoid locations with high vibration transmissions. Vibration meters can be used to test.
Consider the necessity, practicality, and cost of equipment or technology according to THLV.
Choose regulatory equipment or technology based on your THLV assessment
Handy tip: Using an infrared thermometer, check for heat spots and temperature variations within the space. This will help when installing the HVAC system and placement of ducting and thermometer sensors.
Humidity can be controlled by means of a humidifier or dehumidifier (required if the space is too humid). We recommend using a closed-loop feedback system for both temperature control and humidity control.
Lighting: Lighting should be kept to cool white light, preferably LED lighting. Avoid bright fluorescent or halogen lighting.
Building a Wine Cellar or Storage Area
Choose An Organization System
Once space has been set up with the appropriate temperature and humidity controls, racking and stacking should be considered. There are various materials that can be used to achieve the look and feel you want, from different types of hardwood to hollowed-out terracotta bricks (NB: be careful when removing or inserting the bottle into these bricks, they will scratch the labels). When selecting racking material, avoid overly porous material with high absorption rates.
Let your chosen space guide your approach to the organization: Space and area will determine how many bottles or cases you will be able to store. Either the entire space can be converted and regulated, or bespoke wine fridges can be installed. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The space advantage for the entire space is, of course, the freedom to stack and store more bottles as compared to fridges.