One Oenophile’s Opinion . . . On Cellar Temperature

By Jeff Postman - New York

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #68, Winter 2003)

No one knows what the optimal temperature is at which to store wine. The figures usually quoted by wine authorities range from 50 to 60 degrees F but those experts admit that such figures are not based on scientific studies. The one thing experts always warn against, however, is “rapid change in temperature.” Why?

Wine is traditionally stored at between 50 and 60 degrees F because if you dig a hole deep into the earth and excavate a chamber, the temperature there will probably be around 55 degrees. This is how wine was kept in the pre-refrigeration era.

Wine ages through chemical reaction. The rate of such reaction is dependent on temperature, doubling about every 10 degrees C. As long as the wine is not frozen, storing it at cooler temperatures will not harm it, though it will slow down the aging process. Keeping wine above 60 degrees F will accelerate its aging. Keeping wine for any length of time at all above 80 degrees F will damage it irretrievably.

A prominent wine connoisseur mentioned in an IW&FS publication held his wine at 68 degrees F and was apparently perfectly happy with the results. It aged more rapidly but this can be seen as an advantage. It would be interesting to know if his wine, at its presumed “peak,” was as good and had the same taste components as wine stored at 55 degrees F. Such an experiment is impossible since it could only be done fairly by using the identical wines and they might reach their optima a decade apart. Furthermore, such wine experiments are fraught with hazards because there are no firm endpoints and they depend instead on the vagaries of human taste buds.

What if you had a cellar that oscillated between 40 and 70 degrees F on a regular basis? The average temperature would still be 55 degrees F. Which would you prefer, such a cellar that went from high to low in a month’s time or one that went through the cycle every day? I would choose the one that cycled daily because it is less likely that the contents of the bottles would actually reach the extremes of ambient temperature.

Is there a downside to this choice, after all, are we not supposed to avoid rapid temperature fluctuations? Certainly, such changes in temperature are not sufficient to actually agitate the wine. So what’s the problem? Once, when I asked this question, I received the thoughtful response that it would cause the cork to move. Once the integrity of the cork was compromised, exchange of gasses could compromise the wine. But why would the cork move? Most of the contents of the bottle are liquid. Liquids do not significantly change size or pressure with modest changes in temperature. Gasses do. But could the tiny amount of gas in the neck of the bottle really cause a problem? It’s hard to imagine.

This is a question that is actually amenable to practical experimentation and I wish that some wine-dedicated institution would take it up. It might even have bearing on the controversy between the use of cork or substitute closures.