Wine is first and foremost an agricultural product. With that mind, there are basically two types of wine storage: short-term and long-term.
Short term storage is what we typically do with bottles meant to be consumed within six months. It could be tonight. It could be next month. Our expectation is that the wine will basically taste like it did on the day we bought it. There is no expectation that the wine will improve in any way. Short-term storage is uncomplicated.
You basically need a rack of some kind to keep the wine on its side (so that the underside of the cork doesn’t dry out and let air in). Look for a cool place that is not in direct sunlight and is free from any kind of jostling or vibration. Refrigerators are not an ideal place to store wine unless you’re planning to drink the bottle within a week. Of course if you actually have a wine cooling unit, then that is even better.
Long-term storage requirements are completely different. The expectation that the wine will not only survive but improve is the only reason to store wines for more than one year. You can build a big fancy wine cellar to impress your friends, but the only reason to put anything in there is that you expect the wines to get better.
Keep in mind that in a general sense, only about 1% of the world’s wines actually have the ability to improve with time. A bottle of $7 Yellow Tail and a $200 bottle of Caymus Special Selection actually have something in common: neither one is a very good cellar candidate. The Yellow Tail will fall apart quickly because it’s crap, and the Caymus will be the same blob of oak flavor and overripe fruit that it was on day one. Then it, too, will fall part because it lacks the acidity to help it age.
The basic requirements for long-term storage are a constant cool temperature, and moderate humidity. The cool temperature, ideally 55 degrees, provides a stable environment that encourages the wine to change at its own pace. Incidentally, the 55 degree number mimics the temperature of an underground cellar as used by pretty much everyone until the advent of electricity. The humidity requirement just keeps the corks from drying out or mold from developing in the cellar. Honestly unless you live in Florida or Arizona I wouldn’t worry too much about it. There are humidifiers and de-humidifiers available, but if you’re reading this in Virginia you don’t need one.
There are really only two options for establishing long-term storage conditions. You can build a wine cellar in your house or you can buy a free-standing wine cooling unit. I don’t see much point in going into a lengthy examination of each option. The relative costs and convenience factors seem pretty obvious. You can build a very serious cellar in your house for $15-25,000. The cost of free-standing units varies widely according to quality and number of bottles. The only thing I will say is do not skimp on the quality of the unit. The inexpensive units always, and I mean always break. Avoid the ones sold by Wine Enthusiast like the plague. This seems obvious, but just in case, make sure you’re buying a wine cooling unit and not a “beverage center” that is really just a fridge.
Note: lots of wine cooling units have multiple temperature zones. Set them all to 55 degrees. White wine, red wine, and sparkling wine should all be stored at cellar temp. From there you can either chill the wine or allow it to warm before drinking.
I think it’s worth offering some explanation of how wines actually improve in the bottle under long-term storage. The structural components of wine are alcohol, acidity, and tannin. The alcohol and acidity present in the wine are never going to change over time. The tannins (proteins from the grape skins), however, sort of stick to each other over months and years. Picture taking a piece of Scotch tape and pressing it to your shirt. At first, it will pick up a lot of lint. But if you keep dabbing at your shirt eventually the tape won’t be sticky any more. Similarly, once the tannins have stopped sticking to each other, they will precipitate out of the wine as sediment (see my forthcoming post on decanting). At this point wine pros would say that the wine’s tannins are “resolved”. If you want a demonstration of tannin, chew on the skin only of a common table grape. The drying sensation you feel is the influence of tannin.
In addition to alcohol, acidity, and tannin, wines are chock full of organic compounds particular to the type(s) of grape they are made from. They interact with each other within the wine and also shape how the wine changes. These compounds, along with the structural elements of the wine and the influence of where the grapes are grown all contribute to the concept that we typically define as terroir.
Wines are dynamic, almost living things that change in unpredictable ways over time. What we can say is that certain grapes grown in certain areas have established track records of improving with long-term storage. The decisions made by the winemaker also have a profound effect on whether or not the wine will improve.
Lastly, remember that a wine can be absolutely delicious and not be a very good candidate for cellaring. Drink that one while you wait on the others.