The trick to developing a collection that will stand the test of time is a multifaceted endeavor: it requires both attention to detail when selecting young wines, and a cellar strategy that keeps wines in pristine condition so they can be enjoyed as their winemakers intended; some even decades after bottling.
“I think a lot of us lack some of the patience required today, but any quality wine should age for at least five to 10 years,” explains Chris Munro, Head of Wine for Christie’s in the Americas. Aging and storing fine wine over decades—to enjoy yourself, or as an investment—requires more than patience and a good corkscrew.
The art of aging wine is truly an exercise in chemistry, and the crucial element in turning wine into “bottled poetry” (as Robert Louis Stevenson once put it) rather than vinegar, is creating the ideal environment for a wine’s chemical compounds to age and evolve gently and elegantly.
“Wine is constantly evolving as it tries to reach chemical equilibrium,” explains Master Sommelier Sur Lucero. “Different molecules are constantly bonding together and separating as the wine ages, and in the cellar, you’re trying to allow that process to happen as gracefully as possible.”
Beyond a grape’s intrinsic chemical makeup, a wine’s provenance is crucial, explains Lucero, who works as national director of wine education for Jackson Family Wines, Santa Rosa, California. “Wine cellars really are the best place for wines, because their temperature is steady, and sunlight and vibrations rarely effect them.”
Wine is at heart a living, breathing organism, and the transformation of its components is one of its most appealing and intriguing aspects. Over time in the cellar, the fresh fruit flavors and aromatics transform into complex flavors and aromas including mushroom, earth, leather, or cream. Meanwhile, acidity and tannins soften to a velvety texture.
The Key to Storing Wine Successfully
Storage is a crucial facilitator to the process of aging a wine, and is the factor that allows top Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, to develop a delicious, complex flavor profile, rather than something that resembles stewed fruit. A high-quality cellar or wine fridge will protect bottles from wine’s three main enemies: heat, light, and vibrations. All three of these can degrade a wine rapidly, leaving it undrinkable after just a few hours.
“The first rule for aging expensive wine is to store it in an expensive fridge,” says Munro, who adds that inexpensive wine fridges often don’t maintain appropriate humidity levels, which can lead to dry corks and undrinkable wines. Bottles should be stored horizontally, says Munro, so that the wine remains in direct contact with the cork. When bottles are stored upright, the corks can dry out, leading to oxidation.
Related: Learn Why Wine Bottle Size Matters
Temperature Control is Important
Heat is the most critical danger to avoid, and is best done by relying on a good quality wine fridge or renting private cellar space from a professional wine cellarage company, which both Lucero and Munro recommend for collectors who might be considering resale.
The optimal temperature for aging wine—sparkling, red, or white—is between 50 and 59 degrees Farenheit (10—15 °C). Temperatures up to 68 degrees Farenheit (20 °C) won’t harm wines, but collectors should avoid temperature fluctuations above all else.
High-quality wine storage units such as those made by Eurocave, or an underground cellar will provide the ideal combination of temperature, humidity, and stillness that allows wines to undergo their complex chemical changes as slowly and gracefully as their winemakers intended.
Storing and Aging Red Wines
Certain black grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a thick skin and pronounced tannins, and high-acid varieties like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, are able to develop complexities with age; more so than other varieties.
Storing and Aging White Wines
Though white wines lack the tannins that give reds their ability to age in the cellar, their acidity allows them to develop and improve over time. Grapes with naturally high acids, such as Riesling and Chenin Blanc, can easily age for many decades, as can rounder whites like Burgundian Chardonnay, which may have already seen some oak aging during fermentation.
Lucero recommends enjoying easygoing whites such as Torrontes, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Grigio close to their release dates: “There are certain categories of wine that aren’t designed to be aged, and are meant to be enjoyed for their freshness and fruit purity in their youth.”
Storing and Aging Sparkling Wines
Aged sparkling wines, especially champagne, remain some of the most cherished collectors’ items in the world and offer incredible value, especially when sourced directly from the estate where they were produced.
Champagne and sparkling wines that are made using the traditional method (such as cava), are required to be bottle-aged at their respective maison for years or even decades before disgorgement (the removal of dead yeast cells after fermentation). The degradation of these cells over time, known as autolysis, lends aged champagnes and cavas their aromas of pastry and biscuit. These complex wines should be stored horizontally, so that the liquid remains in contact with the cork.
For those with established collections who might be considering resale, Munro notes it’s best to resist the urge to showcase trophy wines at home, and let them rest in their original cases under professional storage.
Whether your cellar consists of champagne magnums or new-release Burgundy, the golden rule for aging wine with a view to building a successful collection is simple; invest in good-quality storage, where possible buy direct from the producer, and, according to Munro: “Buy the wines you really enjoy.”
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