IT IS widely accepted as gospel that wine must be stored on its side in a dark, cool place with a minimum of temperature fluctuations. Purists insist on a constant temperature of 55 degrees, although most contemporary authorities argue that temperatures up to 70 degrees, if reached gradually over several days rather than hours, are safe for your wine.
In an age of high-density living, very few people have ideal storage options, such as an underground cellar, to cradle the wine until it reaches maturity. Instead, most have resorted to stuffing their wine collection in closets, apprehensively wondering whether their prized selections will be liquid gold or vinegar when properly mature.
What would happen to good wines if stored under conditions considered disastrous by purists? Sixteen months ago, six identical pairs of wine were divided into two groups. One group was put up in a dark, cool, temperature-controlled wine cellar where it was stored upright in blissful peace. The second group of wine was treated much more rudely. Relegated to an upstairs closet, this group was also left standing upright and exposed to the temperature fluctuations between 5 degrees and 15 degrees day and night. These wines had to suffer through two cold Washington winters and one hot, humid summer.
Several weeks ago these identical wine twins were reunited for a tasting to determine the effects of the abusive treatment on the one group of wines, and how 16 months of cool, supine sleep affected the wine in the control group. The wines in the tasting included a 1978 Montagny, a white burgundy from P. Javillier; a 1975 Erbacher Konigberg Kabinett, a German riesling; a 1971 Beaune Cent Vignes, a red burgundy from the Domaine Besancenot; a 1978 St. Emilion, Chateau Carteau Nord; a well known 1970 St. Emilion, Chateau Fonroque; and a big rho ne from Co te Ro tie, a 1972 offering from the Domaine Gerin. All wines were tasted in identical pairs by a group of veteran tasters. None of us knew which specific wines were the poorly stored bottles or the properly stored bottles.
The first pair of wines we tasted was the 1975 German riesling from Erbacher Konigberg. The first bottle had a slightly more golden color with the fruit somewhat subdued. The bouquet was more developed and the wine seemed to possess a certain metalic flavor which was not unpleasant, but unusual. In contrast, the second bottle had a lighter color with a fresher, more floral bouquet and more lively, crisper, fruitier flavors. Almost all of the tasters preferred the See WINE, E20, Col. 1 A Temperature Most Wines Can Live With WINE, From E1 second bottle. In terms of overall quality, there wasn't a significant difference, except that the second bottle seemed slightly fresher and possessed more intense fruit. To the surprise of no one, the second bottle was revealed to be the wine that was stored in a temperature controlled wine cellar.
The second pair of wines was the 1978 Montagny, a French white burgundy. The first bottle of Montagny had a rather woody aroma with straightforward, somewhat coarse flavors. The second Montagny was almost identical in the light gold color, but slightly more brilliant to the eye. However, the bouquet of the second bottle of Montagny was perceptively fresher with correct chardonnay aromas and an absence of the intense, aggressive, woody aromas of the first bottle of Montagny. On the palate, the second wine was slightly fruitier and the wine's personality seemed more defined and tightly structured. Both wines were quite pleasant to drink, but the second wine seemed less mature and better balanced, whereas the first wine seemed to be on the verge of losing its fruit. Again, the second wine turned out to be the one that had been properly stored.
The next pair of wines was the 1971 Beaune Cent Vignes, a red burgundy from the Domaine Besancenot. Here the difference between the two wines was remarkable. The first Beaune had more brown and amber colors to it and the bouquet had hints of burning leaves and vinegary aromas. The flavors were intact, but seemed hollow with the alcohol coming through in the finish. Clearly, the first Beaune was in bad condition. The second bottle of Beaune had the typical fully mature, sweet, smoky, fruity, earthy bouquet of a fine burgundy. It had none of the characteristics of senility exhibited by the first Beaune and its flavors were plump and deep, with several extra dimensions of richness not apparent in the first bottle. The differences between these two wines became even greater as they sat in the glass. The first Beaune became increasingly unattractive and faded badly after 10 minutes. In this particular group, storage seemed to be the determining factor as to the condition of the wine because the second Beaune was the properly stored bottle.
The fourth pair consisted of two 1978 St. Emilions, Chateau Cartau Nord. Both wines in this flight had identical dark ruby colors. The first wine seemed to have a more developed bouquet, whereas the second wine was tight, hard and closed. Most of the tasters preferred the first wine because of its more open character. Everyone agreed there were no discernable flaws in either wine. The first wine was the one that had been poorly stored.
The fifth grouping of wines consisted of the reliable 1970 Chateau Fonroque, another St. Emilion. The first wine had a deep ruby color with a spicy, attractive, complex bouquet of ripe fruit. It was rather tannic in the mouth with a dusty, hollowness--a disappointment after 10 minutes, when the bouquet began to fade badly and much of the initial complexity seemed to evaporate. In contrast, the second bottle of Fonroque had a beautiful spicy, rich, fruity bouquet which continued to develop in the glass with breathing. It also had a fatter, plumper fruitiness, with good ripeness and medium tannin. None of the dusty flavors or hollowness was apparent in the second Fonroque. Everyone felt the second Fonroque was a much better bottle of wine and to no one's surprise it turned out to be the wine that had been properly stored.
Lastly, the two full-bodied, spicy rho nes from Co te Rotie were served. Both wines had pungent, intense bouquets and aggressive, viscous, flavors. The first Co te Ro tie, after intense scrutiny, seemed a trifle less rich and interesting, but this was a very minor difference. Both wines bordered on being overripe in style, but all the tasters agreed that both Co te Ro ties were typical of wines of this region with no significant differences. Most of the tasters did express a preference for the second Co te Ro tie because of its slightly richer flavors and a bouquet which was found to be more complex. The second Co te Ro tie was the wine that had been well stored.
Was this tasting conclusive evidence that wines must be stored in temperature-controlled wine cellars? Certainly, five of the six wines preferred by the group were the well-stored wines. However, none of the poorly stored wines was undrinkable. It was only in the two oldest wines, the 1971 Beaune and 1970 Fonroque, that the difference in quality could be described as significant. The youngest red wine in the tasting, the 1978 Chateau Carteau Nord, seemed to have--at least at this point--benefited from its abusive treatment. Certainly, if you are a purist or a person who has considerable amounts of wine and the financial resources and space to build a temperature-controlled wine room, then you should make the maximum investment to protect your wine. However, I think most people need not worry about their closet cellars if they keep the temperature under 70 degrees, the wines on their side and make a modest effort to insulate a closet so that there are no extremely rapid temperature rises or declines. The poorly stored wines in this tasting--given the fact that they were in an uninsulated, upstairs closet, and were standing up with the corks drying out--were in surprisingly good condition for 16 months of poor treatment. Had the wines been kept on their sides with the wine in contact with the cork, the process of maderization (the deterioration of wine into vinegar as a result of exposure to air), which was just beginning to be exhibited by the poorly stored wines, would not have been so evident.
Certainly, wines stored in non-temperature-controlled closets or cellars, where the temperature ranges somewhere between 50 and 70 degrees, will mature faster than wines kept at a constant 55 degrees. However, there is no reason to believe that the quality of wine will be seriously impaired if these wines are stored in a vibration-free, dark room, where the changes in temperature occur gradually.