It must’ve happened to anyone to open a jealously safeguarded bottle with great expectations and find it already exhausted, and to feel remorse for not having uncorked it before: we realise what it could’ve been, the aromas it must’ve had but which have already faded away, losing their vitality.
That superstar who made us dream has become just a memory, even the billboard has blurred and nothing can bring us back, it has been reduced to a hilarious cameo parody of itself.
So, poor us, off we go with the bottle open all night, set in the fridge, on the balcony, in the attic, in the oven… nothing. We are forced to surrender.
There! Is it possible to avoid such situations? I would say no, it is something that can always happen, but we can still limit the risk as much as possible with many precautions.
The first matter, both chronologically and in terms of importance concerns the source of the bottle.
Have we bought it in a cellar or from a supplier who gives us guarantees on the correct storage? Is it a vintage wine, perhaps from an online auction, when we could have doubts about many passages it had to undergo?
By all means, a bottle that has spent the entire month of July in the sun in a backroom, perhaps in Sicily, very likely cannot give us much certainty of its longevity, just as a purchase through Facebook of a ’72 bottle of Barolo from Hawaii might not be such a good deal.
Different aspects have to be considered, for example grape variety, vinification and ageing methods, production area, vintage.
It’s always good to find out about all these aspects in general, especially if we decide to buy wines from unfamiliar areas which vintages are different from ours, and if possible to talk to the producers, who undoubtedly have a long, detailed memory of how their wines evolve.
Pay attention to the vintages, the stage of the bottle does not necessarily follow its real age: for example, it’s easier to find a ’98 Barolo in perfect condition than a 2003 one.
If you buy “old” bottles online, it is wise to opt for resellers with a good reputation and always at least to have a look at the photo of the bottle you are to buy; a ’92 Chardonnay with an orange colour and with the wine level much below the neck is unlikely to be drinkable and will definitely only get worse over time.
Personally, in the warmer months, I avoid buying wines that have to be shipped by courier, as it’s impossible to know what temperatures they may undergo in such various means of transport and storage. In this period of the year I rather turn to wine cellars and wine shops, providing for the transport by myself.
One of the auction houses I usually buy from provides a bottle storage service (free of charge during the summer) so that the wines can be stored and shipped safely in the autumn.
The bottle format also plays a role, large formats allow better storage and evolution of both “still” and sparkling wines.
Now, how can we organise and store our bottles at home?
I said “organise” because it’s essential to have an order: knowing what you are storing and where, so that the bottles never get first forgotten and then found in their down phase.
There are special softwares for this, but actually all we need is a spreadsheet or even a simple text file where we can write down the most important things: label, vintage, price and date of purchase, location in the cellar, notes.
Wines should be stored in the dark, in the absence of vibrations, at a temperature of around 13°C and a humidity of 70%: we must be very lucky to find a room that maintains these characteristics all year round, but if there’s no such a place and we absolutely want to store bottles in these ideal conditions then we are obliged to artificially recreate the specs.
The first possibility is specific air-conditioning for wine: there are air-conditioners (different from those used at home) that, in exchange for the cost of purchase and rather high bills, allow us to preserve perfectly the bottles; it’s worth it if the value of the bottles is pretty high, if our intention is perhaps to make a collection and resell some of them at auction, we are talking about bottles worth thousands of euros.
If our wine cellar counts a hundred bottles or less, there are some very good electric wine cellars that can do the trick, by the way many restaurants use them as well; some of them allow rather easy location of the wines by means of drawers, while cheaper models, organised in shelves, can store the bottles one on top of the other.
In case we have a room, probably a basement, where the temperature varies from 10°C in winter to 20°C in summer we can still use it as a wine cellar, the wines will last a little less than in ideal conditions as long as there are no sudden changes in temperature, which is in fact the major cause of the rapid and unnatural evolution of wines.
The absence of vibrations is quite common while darkness is easy to achieve, it may be enough to cover the racks where we keep the bottles or, in case we use simple shelves, we can just leave the bottles inside their boxes. Usually the electric wine cellars already have the glass properly darkened.
Are bottles stored better lying down or standing up? It depends, and there’s ongoing discussion and research on the topic.
The “classic” literature recommends that bottles with a natural cork should be stored lying down to keep the cork moist, while synthetic, glass or screw-cap stoppers can also be stored standing up.
Sparkling wines should be kept standing upright as well, because this way there’s less wine surface in contact with the air.
Recently, however, a research conducted by the world’s largest producer of corks has debunked this myth by claiming that the cork will never dry out even if the bottle is standing upright and that direct contact with the wine might even alter its mechanical specs.
Finally, how can we store an open bottle?
Generally speaking, red and sweet wines keep better than white wines; sparkling wines, once opened, is better if consumed immediately.
Meanwhile, even reds should also be stored in the refrigerator if you want to keep them, for example, for the next day; it’s better to use one of those stoppers with a pump that sucks the air out of the bottle creating a vacuum: this will reduce oxidation of the wine. These bottles should always be kept upright.
Another very interesting method is to pierce the stopper (just those made of cork) with a needle and inject argon gas in place of the wine that’s been consumed: a process done with the Coravin, a device that costs around 200 EUR. I’ve found that, if used properly, it preserves the characteristics of wines unaltered for a long time. It is perfect for sipping particularly precious bottles and also for “examining” wine batches over and over again.
I leave you with an expression often repeated by a professor of mine from our sommelier school:
When you buy a wine, take at least three bottles, one to be uncorked immediately, the other after a year and the third one to be left in the cellar.
del Maestro Ugo Venturino