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Cellaring: How long will my wine last?

The top question beginner winemakers always ask is, “How long will my wine last?” It's surprisingly difficult to answer that question. If you look at historical purchase patterns for most home winemakers you could say, “About a month and a half, because your friends and family love it so much they drink it all up.”

That's not really satisfying though: what people really mean is, 'Will my Master Vintner wine get better with age or not?' It will, we promise, but answering that means you need to ask a bunch of other questions, like how carefully the winemaker followed the directions, and most importantly, where the wine will be stored for aging.

The best short answer is that Master Vintner kits will age exactly the same as any $25 bottle of wine you bring home from the wine shop. There's no difference between the wines inside the bottle, so if you're happy storing a mid-range bottle in your home, you'll be fine with the wine you make. But how do you know if your home is okay for storing wine?

This becomes more and more important as you progress as a winemaker and begin building a stock of wines for your cellar—you don't want one bottle of wine going off because of a dodgy storage situation, much less hundreds of bottles!

What you need is an actual cellar. Just like the name implies, people use to put their wine in a hole in the ground. They knew that cool steady temperatures and moderate humidity would slow fruits, vegetables and meat from spoiling. What is inside a bottle of wine often has less to do with how well it will age than the external conditions that it will be stored in, and cellars work great for storing wine because of a perfect combination of factors:

  • Cool temperatures. Wine held at cool temperatures, usually in the 52-55F range, ages in a slow, controlled manner. For every ten degrees decrease in temperature, the length of time it takes for the biochemical reactions that govern ageing doubles, allowing wine to slowly ease into new states of flavor and aroma.
  • Steady temperatures. Every time a bottle of wine warms and cools, the wine inside it expands and contracts, alternately pushing and pulling on the cork. Some wine could leak out on the push, and air can enter the bottle on the pull. Obviously, neither of these is desirable. A variation of less than one degree per day, or five degrees between winter and summer is ideal.
  • Darkness—if not complete black then at least the absence of direct sources of UV radiation. While wine doesn’t go skunky like beer does, it does age quicker and suffers from ‘photodegradation’.
  • Humidity—steady, around 70%. Any drier and corks begin to dry out. Once the end of a cork becomes dry, it wicks wine along just like the edge of a paper towel dipped in liquid. Eventually the wine level in the bottle drops, or the cork dries out completely and crumbles. Too much humidity and your corks will get mould, and your labels will disintegrate.
  • No vibration. Wine is a living thing, so constant jostling, thumping and vibrating unsettles it. Store a bottle of wine in an active paint-shaker and it will go bad in just a few minutes. Wine needs to meditate!
  • A ‘clean’ environment. Wine is a food product, just like keeping your angel-food cake away from garlic, you don’t want your precious wine snuggled up to paint thinner, compost, or any other food or non-food item that could transfer flavours or aromas.
Cool, stable, quiet, humid, dark and clean—sounds pretty simple. But most of us aren’t going to be comfortable digging a big hole under the house, and if our home had all those attributes, it’s a pretty sure thing that we’re living in a cave or under a bridge with trolls. You could buy a fancy climate-controlled wine cabinet, but those can be expensive, especially if you’re making your own wine and building up a good collection.

Alternatively, you can use what you’ve got on hand and extend the life and cellaring potential of all of your wine. The easiest way to start is by storing your wine in the coolest part of your home, away from direct light sources, off-odours or vibrations.

You can minimize the impact of temperature changes by keeping the wine up against a north-facing wall. Steer clear of south-facing walls: sunlight striking the foundation or the earth around it can cause temperatures to rise during the day. You can also build an enclosure around your wine rack if it’s out in the open. This will help diminish the impact of convection currents. The enclosure doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you can create it from things as simple as Tyvek (the foam-board house insulating material), duct-tape and corner brackets.

In colder, drier climates like the north and the Midwest, humidity can drop quite low, especially in winter. Too low and your corks will dry out, allowing oxidation and, potentially, leakage. Humidifiers sold for home use are not a good answer; they work too well, and can cause a build-up of mould and mildew, especially in places like the basement, where air circulation is low.

It makes more sense to set up a passive humidifier. Essentially this is a pan of water, a clean dishcloth and a cinderblock. Set the pan of water on top of the cinderblock in your wine cellar, drape the dishcloth half-in and half-out of the pan, and tuck the bottom end on top of the block. This will allow the towel to wick the moisture out of the pan and increase the evaporation into the air. The cinder block will hold any excess moisture and release it slowly, helping keep the humidity steady, even in a cellaring area a large as a thousand cubic feet. When the pan goes dry, wash it, and replace the dishcloth and water, and you're good to go.

Some wines are more susceptible than others to poor storage conditions. In general, white wines–particularly aromatic wines like Moscato and Riesling – are frailer than reds. Grape variety can also make a difference to how well the wine does in storage; so, you would find that a robust variety like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are generally more resilient than delicate one like Pinot Noir.

With a newly bottled wine, it’s tempting to start consuming it right after bottling. While there are many wines that can be consumed young and be everything you want them to be, you'll want to maximize your wine’s potential. A little time in the bottle can make an enormous difference. Most red wines begin life with obvious fruity aromas and some degree of astringency or bite, but with ongoing ageing, they develop softer, gentler, more complex aromas and flavours. The wines become richer as the fruit mellows and as the astringent tannins relax and contribute to the body and character.

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