Wine Talk

Snooth User: Degrandcru

Maximum temperature for long time cellaring...

Posted by Degrandcru, Nov 3, 2010.

As some of you might remember I´ve built an underground winecellar about 1 year ago:

The cellar is made of insulating concrete (basically like a swimming pool), which has the advantage of very stable conditions. My problem now is the temperature.

Temperature balanced out at exactly 69 F without any fluctuations (can be 50 or 90 F in the rest of the house), even if I leave the trap door to the cellar open

Humidity is about 68% and fluctuates slightly.

Most literature states that about 64 F would be the maximum temperature for long time storage.

I am now thinking about breaking a big hole in one wall and replace the concrete with brick or adobe (which would breath and adjust the temperature more to the natural underground environment). It wouldn´t have any risk for the structure, but would bring the temperature down a few degrees (and probably increase the humidity as well).

There is of course also the option to cool it actively, but I´d prefer a passive cellar.

What are your opinions (especially the guys who have experience in long term cellaring 10 - 20 years), would a constant 69 F be too high and if so, would the effort be worth it to bring it down to a constant 64 - 65 F?


Thanks for your input!


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Reply by GregT, Nov 3, 2010.

I'm not sure.  I've had wine in a wine fridge for 15  years and it's fine.  A friend had his in a fridge for 20+ years and he brought over 3 bottles and all were flawed - one was corked, one was just dead, and another had a faulty cork that just crumbled.  None the fault of the storage, but gave us no data.  Most people I know with wine 20 plus years had it in passive storage, which is why we were testing this.

I opened a bottle 2 days ago that I found in my basement.  Was there for at least 8-9 years since we moved into the house and I completely forgot about that case.  I've recorded the ambient temps in the basement for 10 years now and they range from the mid 60s in winter to mid 70s in summer during July and August.  It takes a few months after spring for the heat to really slam the temps up but eventually it does, since the basement isn't really entirely underground.  So these wines have been fluctuating probably 12 degrees or so and the low end of that is the higher end of recommended storage temps.

Now what to say about the condition?  First we tasted was an Australian Mourvedre from Hewitson and it was magnificent.  The cork was dark on the bottom and nothing had worked its way up.  In fact, the cork was pristine.  The wine was 8 years old and stored upright the whole time.  No heat damage apparent to the wine at all. 

I've had other wine stored the same way and have little problem.  Had some wine at my Mother's house in Detroit for about 10 years, planning to have it over Christmas on the 10 yr anniversary.  My wife was visiting one day and called me from Detroit asking where I got some wine that was really good.  I asked where she found it and she said in the dresser downstairs!  So she had the Silver Oak that was in the basement for 10 years.  And she usually doesn't like Silver Oak but apparently after 10 years she does.

I finally built a cellar with active cooling because I am unsure about storing the bulk of my wine in iffy conditions.  I had it in offsite storage but figured for what I was paying, I could build a cellar and have everything close at hand.  Factors to consider are the quality of the winemaking before storage.  In other words, I've some CdP and Rhones that were stored upright for 8-9 years and I have no idea how those are yet, although a 1998 Gigondas seemed quite fine.

I wouldn't want to store my wine at 69 intentionally, but I'm not 100% certain that it's always a bad thing.  In some cases, if you've got bretty wine, you'll probably have a lot more brett than if you'd stored it cooler. In other cases, it may not matter and in some the wine may just crap out.  In your case I'd put an active cooling unit in that you only need for 2-3 months at at time.  And for that, you can actually use a regular room air conditioner - just trick the thermostat.

Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 3, 2010.

Thank you for the input Greg. The active cooling unit for 2-3 months won't work, as I live in Mexico City. You can have all seasons in 24 hours, in winter as in summer. Even in January it can be in the high 80s during the day and very cold at night. Mostly it gets hot during the day and cools down considerably at night, thats one reason I prefer passive cooling. If active cooling it had to be year round and I try to avoid it if I can.

Most of my collection so far is Spanish, reservas and gran reservas. I think mostly they are quite resistant (I had a lot of 90's Riojas lately from friends who store them in way worse conditions and they were just fine). So actually I am not even that concerned about the 69 F (it is very constant, even with the huge temperature swings we have down here within a few hours). One thing that is annoying is that I have to cool them down before serving. I'd like to go down to the cellar and just open the bottle (at least for reds).

As it is a 100% underground cellar, I think I will just open some concrete and see how it works. At least it won't get worse, a few degrees would do the trick and would get me almost perfect conditions.

Reply by dmcker, Nov 4, 2010.

I'm with you on trying to keep things passive. Absolutely the best way, as long as you can create or utilize the right environment down there. Too many issues, problems you can create in the environment, things that can go wrong, and too much cost, I suppose, with active. 

I would, though, try to drop the temperature by at least ive and preferably more degrees, through use of adobe, or whatever.

Greg's iconoclastically critical mind is something I enjoy greatly. I'll still go with accumulated knowledge from centuries about storage position, temperature and humidity. Through doing so I've had scores of wines that have outlasted commonly-stated expectations regarding their ageability.


Reply by GregT, Nov 4, 2010.

Degrand - as it turns out, much of my wine happens to be Spanish too, and so far so good, but you never know. 

D - I don't know but I do have a friend who's a chemist.  He was arguing with a co-worker about something highly technical one day and the other guy insisted that they do something a particular way because he knows it works since that's how he's always done it.  My friend in exasperation yelled at him "That just makes you an expert on the past. It doesn't mean sh** tomorrow."  It was kind of funny but he turned out to be right and he's got a pocketful of patents so I guess he had a point.  I always want guys like that to weigh in on wine issues but alas, he's not a wine drinker.  So I conduct my experiments, usually completely by accident!

Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 4, 2010.

Yes, trying to keep it passive I will go with the adobe replacement, as I am very confident I won´t loose the stability of the climate and am very hopeful to bring the temperature down a least a bit. Have to talk to an arquitect first, as I don´t want to create a swimming pool down there during rain season.

I will let you know how it worked out. Thank you!

Reply by dmcker, Nov 4, 2010.

Greg, I'm not at all a Luddite-like person, and as you know conduct a few experiments of my own. Just don't agree from my own experience with some of your comments about how standing up bottles over time causes no problems, or that storing wine at length at refrigerator-low temperatures also is OK. I've had multiple, severe problems from both those behaviors.

Your guy does have a point, and I'm in process of dealing with just that mentality in my workplace right now, with me being the agent of change, which isn't always frictionless (as I know since I almost always have been in my work past, as well). Just, throwing out all past accumulated knowledge regarding wine also seems foolish. We need to visit Marin and Sean Thackrey's library and have a discussion with him over a few bottles. ;-)

DeGrand, sounds like you're on the right track....

Reply by GregT, Nov 4, 2010.

NOT throwing away all accumulated wisdom at all.  Quite the opposite.  That's why I built a cellar and I'm happy my wine didn't crap out. Just saying that maybe we worry a bit too much sometimes.  Don't forget that the old timers kept things in cellars because they had no refrigeration and their winemaking was often primitive.  I remember in 1990 visiting people in Hungary and they'd always kept their wine in the mountain, just as people had done for centuries.  She gave us a bottle.  It was a red, but almost rosado in color, which was in keeping with the whole winemaking style.  We took it into the car and in four hours it had started fizzing and had pushed out the cork.  No filtering, no stabilization, not clean winemaking.  Lots of bacteria and who knows what else that was kept dormant in the cold cellar but that started blossoming nicely in the 70 degree car. 

The question is what the specific problem was and I don't know offhand.  But let's say we're observing and we know that the wine was brought into the light.  The car was pretty cool, at least as far as we felt, so we look for another explanation.  Eureka!  We say that it must be light.  And then we formulate a rule that wine must be kept on its side and away from heat, motion, and light.

Is that all true?  How many experiments have been done that isolate one variable at a time?  I'm not aware of any that specifically talk to light, for example.  We know that UV rays have effects on this or that molecule, but are they always negative in wine?  Ditto motion.  I know you did that experiment where you rolled a bottle.  Actually I like that experiment a lot, except that you don't know what the condition of the bottles were before purchase, the sample size is small, etc.  But how many experiments have been done on motion alone?  I've actually spent time looking for this kind of stuff and it's hard to come by.  Maybe motion can be good for wine?  Think about it - all this stuff is settling out but maybe stirring it back in every now and then can contribute to flavors and texture over the years? 

What we have are methods that have seemed to suffice for years.  It doesn't necessarily follow however, that those are the only route to success.  Personally, if I could find a way to produce exactly the same result as 15 years of aging in 6 months, I'd be really happy.  We can't obviously, but maybe some day.

In any event, I'm not ready to challenge any of the conventional wisdom, I'm just questioning whether what we all repeat is really the truth.  And in one area I'm absolutely comfortable - the position of the wine.  The idea that wine has to be on it's side is false, as far as I can tell and as far as anything I've read on the subject. That of course can also be explained by logic. 

If your wine actually gets absorbed by the cork, why is that?  The only explanation for needing a continual bath of liquid is because somehow the cork is drying without that bath.  That means wine is continually evaporating from the outside of the cork. But is it wine or water?  The molecules of water are bigger than the constituent gases H and O, and the water alone is smaller if it's not transporting other stuff from the wine along w each molecule.  So if we posit that water evaporates just like it does from a leaf, we have to explain how.  Does a cork, which is bark, have the xylem or phloem to carry the water to the leaf stomata?  And what's happening to the pressure in the bottle as we pull out the water? 

Eventually I guess we end up with bottles under incredible internal pressure.  If the pressure is equal to that on the outside, wouldn't that mean we've got an equal amount of ingress, which comes in gaseous form?  I don't think that happens. The point of the cork is to prevent air from coming in and wine from going out.  So why store on the side other than for stacking purposes, which is probably the reason it was started in the first place?

Reply by dmcker, Nov 4, 2010.

So how do you explain ullage, damage, etc. that has occurred when the cork is obviously dried out?

And, though this is anecdotal, that 3 out of 4 times when I have to take a bottle back to the merchant it's one that has stored its wines for display to the consumer upright. And when I delve deeper they've often been upright for weeks and months. Even in temperature controlled wine 'rooms' within the shop.

Reply by GregT, Nov 4, 2010.

D if you ever get over here, we're trying some wines and I'm not telling you which were stored upright and which were stored on the side.

Ullage, etc., has to do with either evaporation, which means the cork was not a good seal to start (one of my complaints about cork) or it has to do with heat fluctuation.  Remember that gas has an expansion rate about 1000 times that of liquid, and for all practical purposes, a "solid" like glass or cork doesn't fluctuate.  So a small amount of heat moves that gas in the headspace and it's got to get out somewhere. Either thru or around the cork. The glass doesn't change dimensionally, nor the wine.  So with heat the gas expands and with cooling it contracts, drawing air thru or around the cork.  You never get transference thru a screw cap so you never get ullage.  But it's got to do with temperature mostly, not with "normal" evaporation, which you don't want.

Don't know if you ever read Kon Tiki but they were out for a few days and he noticed that the raft was floating lower in the water.  Cut a piece of bamboo from the side and dropped it into the sea and it sank, meaning it was saturated.  So he was worried but turns out the seawater only penetrated 1/4 inch or so and the bamboo stayed dry. Point being that the wine better not penetrate all the way through the 3 inch cork or you're screwed!


Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 4, 2010.

I don't know Greg, wine was stored on the side for centuries, so I guess its certainly not a bad thing to do. Is it really necessary? I doubt it as well. I don't believe that it is necessary this way to keep the cork moist. There is plenty of humidity in the bottle to do this no matter how the bottle is stored. But on the other hand its just the most convenient way to store it and keep many bottles in little space and have them all accessible (and I think thats the reason it got common to store wine laying down in the first place).

I am convinced though that temperature is a big factor as I had plenty of "cooked wine". I don't know whats the limit though, but its just convenient to have it at 18C or below as you don't have to cool it down before serving (reds at least).

Of course you can worry too much as well. I recently visited the cellars of the French club in Mexico City. They have about 25,000 bottles of French wine, the biggest collection of French wine in the country. They have 3 different cellars, one at 20 C where they keep wine for a year after the container arrives from France, so the wine adjusts, one at 15 C where the wine is laid down until it reaches its peak and one at 18 C next to the restaurant, where the wine ready for consumption is stored (thats the wine they show on their menu). Impressive to see, but of course completely unnecessary (don't tell the sommelier so, he insists...).




Reply by GregT, Nov 5, 2010.

I'm sure you're right on both counts.  The side storage is far more convenient.  Temp too - no question some wines can be cooked.  I would love to know though, what the temp is at which we reach the danger point and my hunch is that it would really depend on the wine in question.  The problem is that I'm happy to do the experiment with YOUR wine but I don't want to risk my own, and so nobody does these experiments.

We know that brett really takes off in the low - mid 60s F, so that's one data point.  Many of the chateaux in France, at least Bordeaux, have cellars that aren't constantly super cool year round.  Can't remember off the top but at least one of the first growth cellars goes up to at least the mid 60s in the summer.  That may account for the bretty qualities of some of those wines, who knows.

Anyhow, post a pic of your final solution.  I'm curious to see how you'll deal with the problem.

Reply by dmcker, Nov 5, 2010.

I'd really like to know why, Greg, you view cork and glass as the same 'solids'. I've never busted out the SEM, nor worked with a chemist in the lab to measure all pertinent aspects, but even as a layman who's had two many pints of ale followed by glasses of Barolo tonight (I've been going around to all the 80plus venues where the Japan Music Week will be playing next week (everything from jazz and classical to House and J-pop, though strangely no Blues over here), to be sure they're set up for our mobile app), I'm sure there's a lot more air, and porosity, in cork than glass. Thus I'm not staying with your argument two posts back...


Reply by Stephen Harvey, Nov 5, 2010.


Great debate, I really enjoyed the course of this thread.

My observations are probably a bit repetitive of the above but I would say this

If you follow many great and not so great wines on their travels from point of production to point of consumption, whether it is a six month journey or a 50 year journey I suspect there will be many diversions from the "expert opinion" on how wine should be stored and transported.

My very anecdotal view is that there is little doubt that extremes will impact the quality of wine and here is some dot point obsevations:

  • Wine stored at 30C/86F+ probably is going to deteriorate and have that cooked aspect and will not live its expected life
  • Wine stored under intense light conditions will probably be subject to chemical change due to the impact of light
  • High humidity will cause issues with corks and therefore will impact the wine
  • Dramatic temperature fluctuations will probably cause chemical instability - therefore storing a wine in a room which can go from 0C to 23C or from 40C to 24C in a couple of hours of airconditioning/heating is likely to be a bad thing.
  • I have observed many wine company/distributor/retailer warehouse/storage areas that are less than ideal, particularly in my area where our summers have extreme heat conditions similar to California
  • I have observed many very good restaurants who have wine rooms where no matter how hard they try the vagaries of power supply companies means that they all are likely to regularly lose power and that is usually during summer power peaks
  • I suspect that outside of the First Growth Chateaux and the abodes of the super rich that very few wines are stored in what is generally "accepted" pristine ideal conditions. 
  • I also suspect that concept of generally "accepted" pristine ideal conditions is promoted by those fortunate enough to be able to afford them so that they can maintain their position of having far better wine than any of us "little people" because of their superior socio-economic status.

I built my cellar in 2001,it is located under our dining room.  It is basically the same construct as a swimming pool, and is 12'x10'x8'high.  The roof is jarah flooring with standard insulation.

The temperature extremes I live in range from -1C/10C winters to 25C/45C Summers.  We can get up to 10 day heat waves over 35C with no relief at night.

I have got my temperature range now going from 16C/60F in winter to 20C/68F in summer, I am looking at installing a cooling system for summer to try and get a constant 16C-18C range.

An interesting observation is that the when  I drink a red from the cellar during summer its "mouthfeel temperature" seems to be what I expect in a restuarant.

Anyway my overall hypothesis is that:

  • an inferior seal such as tree bark will be more suspect under variable temperature than Stelvin or Glass seals
  • we should not have to store a wine so that it best suits an inferior packaging component
  • wine is more suspect to mythology than politics and many so called best practices are more likely creations of people looking for marketing "fluff" than genuine provable outcomes
  • Common sense always prevails - the more stable, less volatile conditions you store your wine in the better outcome you will get


Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 5, 2010.

Stephen, seems like you have a similar construction as I do. Could you post some pictures? Mine is similar to a swimming pool as well. Strange that you have those temp fluctuations. Mine is constantly at 21 C, no matter whats the temperature in the house (at the moment we have 5 C at night and 25 C during the day, no heating or air conditioning in the house, so lots of fluctuation in little time, but the temperature in the Cellar is unchanged.

I don't see the need to install a cooling system. 20C for a few days or even weeks should be just fine. Why don't you wait how my solution works out, maybe it would work for you as well. Should be there in a couple of weeks and will post the outcome with pics.

Reply by GregT, Nov 6, 2010.

Stephen - nice post and I agree with most of it.

Two observations - high humidity is an interesting issue.  I'm not sure why it will cause problems with corks though, since the humidity inside the bottle is around 100%. There's a guy in Spain who before releasing his wine, stores it at the bottom of the sea in a steel cage to get the most stable temps.  The most humid cellars I've been in are in Hungary and there's mold that can be 6 inches thick covering the walls and bottles and everything else.  It destroys lables, so you wrap the wine in plastic wrap if you want to keep a label intact, but most of the wines for sale aren't labeled.  Lopez de Heredia actually has some areas of their winery that are similar and if I could figure out how to post pictures, I'd post one of the wine we had this fall that was covered with black mold a few inches thick.  It was a 1964 and the cork was perfect.

You're completely right about the transport issue - unless wine is shipped in refrigerated containers from winery to your home, it's going to have some temperature fluctuation.  In the US, it's mostly ground transport, so you better hope that the trucks were cooled and I can tell you that for local deliveries from warehouse to stores, most of them are not.  From Europe or elsewhere, transport is usually by boat and if the wine is below the water line it can be cool even if not in a refrigertated container, but that doesn't account for the docks at both ends, nor the trucking to and from the port.  In temps like we have right now, it's ok to ship in an insulated, rather than a refrigerated container, and in fact, you probably don't need anything at all if you're in the Northern Hemisphere. 

But from the Southern to Northern Hemispheres, there's never a good time because the boat has to cross the equator so better hope the wine has some active cooling.  Obviously most people know about those issues, but there's a gap between what is actually done and what would be considered perfect.

Temp fluctuations are an issue and they matter more with cork and that goes to D's question.  I get that cork and glass are different but they're more alike to each other than either is to water or gas.  Cork is a porous material and in a sense perhaps not 100% solid, and glass of course is an amorphous solid and I guess by some definitions isn't really a solid at all, but for all practical purposes both are.  So if you've got solid, liquid, and gas and they're all at the same temp, you're fine. If you apply heat, they all expand, but at vastly different rates.  The gas expands at something like 1000 times the rate of the liquid.  In fact, again for our practical purposes, the liquid and solids won't expand much at all while the gas will expand rapidly at relatively small temperature fluctuations, like the difference between 50 and 75 degrees F.  Of course that creates pressure within the bottle. 

Then what? 

With enough pressure, something has to give. If your cork is crappy, you can get diffusion through the cork, which you don't want.  Of course, if the temp drops, you get lower internal pressure and thus diffusion back into the bottle, which is even worse.  Now your cork is "breathing" and you're oxidizing your wine.  Alternatively, your cork gets pushed out a bit by the internal pressure, compromising the seal and you get diffusion around the cork. You may even get some evaporation of the wine, resulting in ullage.

But there's another possibility and that comes from the cork itself. 

As mentioned, the cork is a solid for purposes of my argument, but let's make a different argument and look at the properties of the cork itself.  It's made up of tiny cells that are super-impermeable but essentially hollow. (I know, not 100% but sufficient for our purposes.)  So we may be getting diffusion into the cork.  That's an entirely interesting area in and of itself because under ideal conditions with an ideal cork, that may in fact be a significant source of oxygen during the ideal aging process.  And it would explain why you end up with lower fill levels even in wine kept in pristine condition.

Other than the last however, which is still speculative, you don't want any exchange of air between the inside and outside of the wine bottle.  And in that case, it doesn't matter if you have rapid or slow temperature fluctuations. Thus, five gradual fluctuations over a year are likely just as bad as having five fluctuations in December.  Air exchange of course, is only one problem associated with high temps.  The rates of reaction and growth of other things probably matter as much or more. And at extreme temps, you get a cooked flavor too, which is yet another problem.  But I've not had that at temps in the 60s. 

BTW, last night I opened a 2003 Rhone that had been stored upright since purchase and was in fact stored at temps in the 60s for most of its life.  It was great, much to my great surprise.  I really expected it to be bad so brought 2 bottles as back up.  It turned out to be far better than expected, especially for that vintage. 


Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 24, 2010.

Seems like it was successful. We broke two big holes in the walls and made a nice looking brick frame (will post some pictures after some touch up and painting).

The humidity came up to almost 80% and the temperature dropped to 18C (64 F). In the last few days it was very consistent and didn't fluctuate at all even though we have huge fluctuation within 24 hours outside the cellar. If it stays like this, I'll be very happy with my passive cellar.

Reply by dmcker, Nov 25, 2010.

Sounds great, Degrand, and nice fix. Looking forward to the pictures.

Reply by Crystal Evans, Nov 25, 2010.

I am a newbie here and just wanna say Hi to everyone. I am Crystal from Louisiana, US.

free photoshop tutorials

Reply by dmcker, Nov 25, 2010.

Well, Degrand, looks like your cellar also just got spammed.... ;-)

Reply by Degrandcru, Nov 25, 2010.

Yes, seems like Crystal is very interested in my cellar temperature.

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