This is the fifth in our series of "how-to wine" posts. Click here for previous entries.
No one has been able to offer a scientific explanation for why the legendary cellars of Bordeaux's châteaux are so perfect for aging wine.
What we do know is that during the winter, temperatures in the underground cellars, which lie a stone's throw from the sea, gently drop. As a result, the wine contracts slightly, as do the corks. It is believed that the minute amount of oxygen that slowly seeps through the cork (an organic, porous mass) subtly oxygenates the wine and that, with the passing of the years, this achingly slow aging process creates unparalleled nuance and complexity in the wine.
Some say that this unquantifiable phenomenon, coupled with the even cooler cellars in the homes of 19th-century British bankers, where the wine would ultimately lie supine, is what gave rise to Bordeaux's legacy as one of the greatest wines in the world.
Languorous temperature fluctuation may be beneficial for expensive wines from France.
But exposure to extreme temperature -- whether hot or cold -- is any wine's and any wine lover's worst enemy. And that's the major problem we face here in Houston when it comes to wine storage.
Unlike arid southwest states like Arizona, where you can easily forecast high temperatures and the consequent storage issues, Texas has wild temperature variation (one of the reasons it's such an ill-suited place to grow fine wine grapes).
After you purchase wine and manage to bring it home safely (a task that can prove challenging in the Houston summer, when too many people "cook" their wine in the trunks of their cars), you have to keep in mind that simply placing it in a rack in your home kitchen can be the worst possible storage solution. Even with air conditioning, temperatures will fluctuate wildly during summer. Just think of how hot the kitchen gets at 6 p.m. on a sultry July evening when all the burners are on high on the stove top.
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Houston does offer what is perhaps the most colorful range of off-site storage solutions in the nation. But most of these venues are generally marketed to the one-percenters, and many of them are like country clubs where membership is exclusive.
There are a number of bourgeois-geared self-storage sites that offer temperature control and even customized wine storage. These are the best bet for people like you and me who want to engage in long-term collecting. But how many of us actually invest in long-term aging?
One of the best solutions, for the privileged among us, is an investment in a EuroCave or similar wine refrigerator. They can be elegant, and make for great conversation starters (if you have nothing better to talk about).
In my experience, the best solution in addressing Texas summer heat is to have two refrigerators: One for food, obviously, and the second, with the racks removed and the bottles piled horizontally. If you turn the temperature up to the warmest setting, it will perform the exact same function as a more expensive EuroCave. Buy a thermometer if you like to check the temperature. But don't believe the hype that 55° is the only ideal temperature to store your wines. You just need to keep the wines cool. The cellars of Bordeaux are not "temperature-controlled." They're just cool.
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And unless you're engaging in long-term collecting and aging, humidity is not an issue whatsoever. (For long-term aging, humidity helps to keep the corks moist.)
If a second refrigerator isn't an option, be sure to keep the wine in the coolest area of the house away from the part of the house where the sun beats in the afternoon. Ideally, the wine should not be exposed to light (this is one of the reasons why a workaday fridge is so great for storing wine). And always keep the wine stored on its side so that the corks stay moist.
If you don't take care of your wine once you get it home safely, you'd be better served by not buying it in the first place.
Next on deck in our "how-to wine" series: How to talk to a wine shop salesperson without sounding like an idiot or a jerk.