Kelly J. Hayes: Wineink
August 21, 2011
Generally speaking, all wine is the same, simple thing: fermented grape juice.
From the Two-Buck Chuck that you pick up at Trader Joe’s (oh that’s right, we don’t have the great TJ’s here in Colorado-yet) to a vintage Bordeaux you have been cellaring for years so that you can drink it at just the right time, all wines are the result of a process. Someone picks the grapes from the vines and encourages them to interact with yeast, turning the sugars in the grapes into alcohol.
Now, of course, there are millions of variations in grapes, terroir, and techniques used by winemakers to make each and every wine unique. But at their core, wines are wines. And, as a result, all wines are subject to the same things that can destroy them or make them unpleasant to drink. Poor storage or improper handling during the shipping process can turn any wine into a disappointment for the unsuspecting drinker when the wine is opened.
Storing wine properly is not difficult, but it does, particularly in the summertime when temperatures rise, take a little thought. If you are buying a wine in the afternoon for consumption that evening you likely won’t have to do much other than setting the wine in a shady corner of your kitchen. But if you plan on holding wines for an extended period there are some steps you should consider to make sure that your investment yields the proper pleasure when you choose to drink your wines.
Light, heat and humidity are the main culprits in turning fine wines into something less than what the winemaker had in mind when he/she bottled the wine.
Let’s begin with light. You’ll note that the majority of wine bottles have color in the glass. Some are amber, some are green. This is designed to protect the wines from ultra-violet light that could cause what is called “Lightstrike,” the word we use in English to describe the wine fault that the French so elegantly refer to as “goût de lumiere,” or the “taste of light.”
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Goût de lumiere, we’ll use the French verbiage here because it is so … French, occurs when particular rays in the spectrum of UV light cause a chemical reaction in a bottle of wine that ignites a fault in the wine. It can cause a wine to taste like, in the words of J. David Harden who authored the great wine blog Rational Denial (described as “A laboratory devoted to wine experimentation, palate education and other junk science” though it was always so much more), “rancid rubber bands and damp sheep.”
In fairness, most red wines, due to tannins that are present in them, don’t break down due to exposure to light. But delicate white wines, particularly Champagne, is susceptible to the goût de lumiere. To be sure, try to keep your wines out of the light and in a cool, dark place.
Which brings us to temperature. When wines are stored in hot places bad things can happen. At around 77 degrees fahrenheit, about the average temperature of an August afternoon here in the Roaring Fork Valley, wine can begin to get “cooked” which can give the wine the flavors of raisins rather than grapes. Now for most wines there would have to be exposure to heat for an extended period before this were to happen, but be careful. Especially, once again, with delicate white wines which will be more prone to the effects of high heat.
If you plan on storing wines for an extended period the ’50s are the most comfortable temperatures for them to be in. Or, to carry a theme, about the average temperature of a late October afternoon here in the Roaring Fork Valley. A cool closet, a basement, a wine cooler, or, if you have the means, a temperature and humidity controlled cellar are the perfect places to maintain the integrity of bottles of fine wine.
And then there is humidity. As we have a dry climate here in the mountains, wine that will be stored for a long period of time is best maintained with a bit higher level of moisture in the air. Around 70 to 75 percent humidity is recommended by wine experts to keep the corks from drying out, which will prevent air from getting into the bottles and oxidizing, or creating bitter flavors in the wines.
The one thing I like to do before opening a wine is to cool it just slightly. Take a bucket, fill it with cool water and a few ice cubes and let the bottle sit for just a few minutes. The wine will always warm a bit in the glass but, particularly on a warm summer’s eve, a quick chill can take the edge off.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.