Last week I began to take a look at cellar conditions -- the good, the bad, and the misinformed. I had written that article to include all the variables, but after covering light, vibration, and humidity, plus the added content on cellar temperature and the effect it has on corks, it proved to be simply too long to include in a single email. In fact, I've even broken this follow-up article down into two pieces, which are both available online.
It's really not very surprising to find that the most important cellar variable -- climate -- deserves the lion's share of attention here. It's not only that cellar temperature is so important, but also that it has been the subject of many years of misinformation and a dogmatic approach that has given 55F/13C almost mythical standing in the world of wine. The question, though, is why cellar temperature is so misrepresented?
So is 55F/13C really the perfect temperature for your cellar? Well, yes and no. Let’s use my cellar as an example. I’ve tracked the temperatures in my cellar and they range from a long period of 55F (the ambient temperature of most cellars, since it’s the average temperature of the earth deeper than about 3 yards/meters below grade level) to a brief peak of about 67F/19C. The rate of change tends to be very slow and steady, on the order of about 1/10 of a degree per day. At this rate, and with this peak, my cellar has consistently produced great wines after 20 and even 30 years.
But can we do better? I have no doubt that if the temperature of my cellar were maintained at a constant 55F my wines would age more slowly. 55F to a wine is almost like being in a deep freeze; the wine evolves at a glacial pace. I am thrilled when the wines I’ve purchased 20 years ago are drinking well today, so I am not sure I have the patience to store my wine at 55F and then have to wait another 10 years to get to the same state of evolution. So, we begin to see how cellar temperature considerations can be tuned to your needs.
My answer would be that in the perfect world I would have two temperature stages to my cellar, if not three. One at about 65F for the maintaining of current consumption wines. Another section that tracks the annual temperature swings of my current cellar, producing wonderful mature wines, and a last section kept at 52F so that my old, fully mature wines can be kept at peak for as long as possible.
Maintaining proper cellar temperature is the most complex, and frankly the most important aspect of storing wine. Too cool and the wines may outlive us, taking forever to mature; too warm and the wines mature too quickly, or worse. So, there is a just-about-right range. I would suggest that if you have a place that holds between 55F and 70F year round with only gentle shifts in climate, you have the temperature conditions for a wine cellar! The cooler the better to a certain extent, but my wine cellar's average year round temperature of about 60F seems to be just about perfect for me.