It’s mid-June and while sitting in my living room contemplating my topic for this month it was impossible to ignore the 107 degree elephant that loomed just outside the window. Living in southern Arizona presents the wine aficionado with climatic challenges more significant than many other parts of the country. These challenges influence the manner in which we purchase, transport and store our wine.
It is important to understand that unlike a Twinkie or can of Spam, wine continues to evolve in the bottle. In certain instances, such as age-worthy Barolos, change is a much-needed factor that contributes to the wine’s character and flavors. In other cases, time combined with improper storage can turn your favorite red blend or Sauvignon Blanc into vinegar. If you are anything more than a casual consumer of wine it is essential to understand the basic adversaries that can stand between you and your evening’s enjoyable glass.
Wine in a bottle has three enemies that given the opportunity will cause its premature deterioration: temperature, light and oxygen. All three elements pose significant concerns here in Saddlebrooke.
Bottled wine reacts poorly to temperatures over 65˚ F, as well as repeated fluctuations in temperature. These conditions will cause wine to start breaking down: its fresh fruit notes will become stewed and structural elements, such as acid and tannins, become more conspicuous and unpleasant. Heat is the #1 wine killer so beware.
And while sunlight is a critical component to the maturation of vines and wine grapes, it is an enemy of the finished product. Blue and ultraviolet light transforms the amino acids present in wines into chemical compounds that will first dull, taint and then ruin the flavor of wine. Sustained exposure to sunlight or fluorescent light can irreversibly damage your bottles. (Think about this before you pick up that deeply discounted bottle that has been sitting on your supermarket shelf for who knows how long.)
Finally, oxygen, when introduced into bottled wine reacts with the bacteria and enzymes present in the wine and immediately begin to alter the flavor. A little oxygen, introduced when the bottle is opened, can actually enhance the character of certain wines. This is why you will get advice to let your wine ‘breathe’ before pouring or aerate your wine to ‘open’ it up. Eventually though, air will cause wines to brown just like a banana left too long on your kitchen counter. Winemakers take great pains to keep as much oxygen out of wine during bottling and use closures such as natural or synthetic corks to keep the admission to a minimum. Unfortunately, storage in conditions of low humidity can dry out natural corks over time, causing them to shrink and allow air into the bottle.
The effects of heat, light and oxygen will vary from bottle to bottle. Wines produced in bulk will generally have higher levels of preservative, such as sulfur dioxide and are more resistant to poor transport and storage. More expensive, hand crafted wines tend to have less chemical manipulations and should be handled with care.
So in a nutshell, the ideal place to store wine is on its side, in a dark location, with high humidity at a constant temperature under 60˚. Here in Arizona that pretty much limits your options to a wine cooler or your refrigerator. Sure, storing your wine in a closet or cabinet for a few months should be okay, but over the long haul this is not a good idea. Conversely, the kitchen counter, a bookshelf, or worse yet, the garage should be avoided.
Personally, I try not to buy too much wine during the months of June through November as I worry about the conditions in which the wine was transported and stored between the winery and retailer. The same goes for wine club shipments; my seasonal window for this is very small. After purchasing wine you should transport it home in the passenger compartment of your car, especially during the summer months. And don’t go shoe shopping leaving the bottles in the car; your wine won’t like it. Think of it like a gallon of milk and you should be just fine.
Lacking sufficient safe space, the best strategic plan is to buy only as much wine as you can properly store or use for near-term drinking. For those wine geeks like me this requires real discipline.
Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England and is available to answer your wine questions at email@example.com