The classic advice for how to store wine is this: keep your bottle on its side in a cool dark place. Why is this the key to keeping bottles safe? To prevent damage, unopened wine should be kept away from light, heat, and oxygen. Using the above method to store wine protects your bottles from all of those elements at once. Here’s how it works.
Prevent heat damage in wine
If wine is exposed to too much heat, it will effectively cook. This process is known as “maderization.” Maderized wines will taste more like raisins and almonds than ripe fruit. While these flavors might be appealing when they’re intentionally created in a dessert wine (like a Madeira), they’ll be off-putting in your dry table red.
Prevent cold damage
Have you ever attempted to quickly chill a bottle of wine in the freezer, only to wake up the next morning and find a frozen bottle? We’ve all been there. Extreme cold, either from a freezer or an over-achieving fridge, can result in wine damage.
Liquids expand as they freeze. In a bottle of wine, the pressure created by this expansion will begin to force the cork out of the bottle, effectively opening the wine. This exposes the wine to oxygen, meaning it will begin to spoil.
In addition to cork damage, freezing will separate the water from the alcohol and other elements of wine. While water freezes at -32ºF, pure alcohol freezes at -173ºF. That means that as the water solidifies, the alcohol remains liquid on top. Likewise, the proteins and acids in wine will not freeze, and will be forced together. This process can cause the acids to crystalize and form sediment.
Frozen wine isn’t spoiled, but it will lose a bit of its original character. This wine would still be great for cooking.
Prevent light damage
Direct sunlight can easily damage wine, especially if it’s in a clear bottle. This condition is called “light strike,” and it occurs when the sun’s UV rays activate naturally-occuring acids in the wine. The UV rays catalyze a reaction that creates an off-putting, sulfurous smell. This wine is spoiled.
Why on its side?
Prevent oxygen damage
Oxygen and wine have a complicated relationship. Oxygen is what causes wine to age and mature. Corks are naturally porous, and their ability to slowly introduce oxygen over time allows wines to continue to develop once bottled.
Oxidized flavors in wine aren’t inherently bad. Some wines, like many sherries, are intentionally aged with oxygen while they age to bring out nutty flavors. In those cases, oxidation is wonderful. However, if the cork is compromised, or an open wine is stored incorrectly, a wine can oxidize in the wrong way. This will change the flavor of a normally bright, juicy, and fruit wine into a mellow and nutty wine.
This type of cork damage can occur when a wine is stored standing upright for an extended period of time. Improper storage will cause the cork to dry out and crack, exposing the wine to oxygen. Storing wine on its side means that the liquid in the bottle will come into contact with the cork, keeping the hydrated and the wine safe.
This one is a little bit obvious, but wine bottles are glass, and they can break. Wine stored on a rack on its side can’t be easily tipped over and broken. Avoid recklessly stacking bottles, and if you’re going to store several bottles on a shelf, make sure it is anchored to the wall and can hold the weight.
How to store open wine
Once you’ve opened a bottle, you can forget about these rules. First, re-cork your open bottle to minimize oxygen exposure. Then just store open red wine or open white wine in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Tip: Don’t store wine above your fridge! Refrigerators expel heat, and bottles stored on top of a refrigerator are at risk for heat damage.