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When buying wine with the intention of laying it down for storage, one is making an investment – whether in their own personal future enjoyment of said wine, or the potential resale value. However, improper storage of those precious bottles could lead to tragedy. Wines finished with a cork enclosure are especially delicate and require a few extra details when storing to ensure optimal quality upon opening.
Wines with natural cork are best suited for wines with an aging potential of 5+ years because they allow a tiny amount of oxygen to penetrate your wine. Synthetic corks are better suited for cheaper wines that should be drunk within 2 years of purchase.
Although many wines today are bottled with screw caps, there is nothing as nostalgic and wholesome as a natural cork. In this article, I want to lead you on a journey that will open your eyes to various types of corks and how to best store your wine with a cork. It is an important topic for all wine lovers and I hope you learn something from this article.
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How Cork Quality Influences Wine Storage
Wines closed with a cork are ideal for long-term aging; a natural cork product should be used on any wine with the potential to age five years or longer. Natural cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree.
Corks are ranked by several factors and there are actually eight different quality levels based on considerations like the density of the cork, how porous it is, the size, and the smoothness of the surface.
The better the cork, of course, the better it will protect the wine inside the bottle for the long haul. The higher-level corks are certainly more expensive to manufacture, and therefore the cost is increased for the producers – a cost that is often passed on to the consumer through higher bottle prices.
The best corks are longer than others and are made from one piece of natural cork. These are the most likely to maintain their shape and seal within the bottle for the longest period of time.
Please note, this only applies to standard-size bottles. Large-format bottles often require a multi-piece cork simply due to the size required.
Lesser quality ‘natural’ cork options are shorter and often made by mixing powdered cork flour with glue or by stacking cylindrical pieces of cork together.
There are a number of synthetic cork products on the market, although most fine wine producers continue to use natural cork enclosures.
Synthetic corks are manufactured to behave as close to natural cork as possible, so in general, the same storage rules apply to both (although these are not the closures recommended for long-term storage).
Other wine closures available include screwcaps and crown caps (or, of course, non-traditional options like boxes or cans) and these wines have their own set of storage considerations, though the general guidelines below apply to basically all wine on the market.
While the purpose behind any of these closures is to limit the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle over time, extensive research has found that natural corks do allow for a very small amount of oxygen to slowly enter the bottle and interact with the wine.
The amount of oxygen that flows through is called the ‘oxygen transmission rate,’ and this is a big component of bottle aging and the changes a wine undergoes while aging in the bottle.
Synthetic corks and screw caps allow different amounts of oxygen through (meaning they have different oxygen transmission rates), thus making these bottles less ideal for long-term storage.
Too much oxygen can be the enemy of fine wine, and not enough oxygen can halt the aging process. However, this slow trickle of oxygen over many years through the porous natural cork closure can help a wine mature and evolve without becoming oxidized.
4 Guidelines for Storing Wine with a Cork
There are some universal principles to follow whenever storing wine, especially in the long term. Imagine a cool, dark, damp wine cellar below the great chateaux of Bordeaux – this is exactly the type of environment to try and emulate for personal wine storage.
1. Temperature Between 50-55° to Keep Wine Cool
Temperature is perhaps the most important of these variables. Both red and white wines should be stored at around 55° F. More so, maintaining a consistent temperature is key for preserving the wine.
Wide fluctuations in temperature must be avoided at all costs – this can cause the cork to expand and contract in the bottle, losing its integrity.
While 55° F is ideal, a few degrees on either side won’t damage the wine, as long as the temperature remains consistent.
When ready to serve, chill a white that has been stored at 55° F for a few minutes, and allow a red to slightly warm up. Try tasting the wine at slightly different serving temperatures to see what characteristics come out!
2. 60-70% Humidity to Prevent Cork Damage
Humidity levels are also important when storing wine with a cork. Again, consistent moisture levels prevent the cork from drying out and help it maintain its seal. Additionally, a cork exposed to very humid air can begin to grow mold that could taint your wine with a very unpleasant taste.
3. Darkness to Keep Wine Rested
Avoiding UV light is another consideration when storing wine in general (both with or without a cork stopper). The light can damage the wine and also affect the direct temperature of the bottle.
I wrote a complete breakdown of why sunlight is very bad for your wine you should check it out if you want to learn more.
4. Protect Wine from Vibrations
Finally, storing wine somewhere without a lot of activity and vibrations will help protect the wine in the long term. Your standard kitchen fridge produces near-constant micro-vibrations that can ruin your wine over time. Tiny vibrations can also stir up sediment that should instead rest safely on the bottom.
Regardless of the storage method, following these general guidelines will help protect one’s wine investment. This is especially true for bottles with natural corks.
5 Proven Ways to Store Wine With a Cork
There are several ways to go about achieving these ideal storage conditions.
1. Basement Shelves
Shelves in a basement can often check off most of these basics – basements tend to be dark, cool, and humid, and free of heavy traffic.
Make sure that the shelves allow the bottles to be stored horizontally, not vertically (more on that later). A dark closer or corner can work in a pinch.
Be sure to avoid areas with lots of temperature fluctuations (the kitchen, or near a heat source) and without a lot of natural light. To truly dial in on temperature and humidity, one should look at purchasing a wine cooler or refrigerated wine cabinet.
2. Wine Refrigerator
A wine cooler is a good entry-level option for a smaller wine collection. These fridges, which can usually house a few dozen bottles, can be temperature and humidity controlled to a certain extent, and many also offer some level of UV protection.
They tend to be more limited in size and customization but can certainly work to help preserve a few precious bottles without taking up a ton of space.
They don’t tend to have a ton of power and can get overexerted, preventing them from maintaining a consistent temperature, especially in areas with extreme temperatures.
3. Refrigerated Wine Cabinets
Refrigerated wine cabinets are the next step above a basic wine cooler. They can often house a couple of hundred bottles and allow more control in terms of temperature zones and moisture settings.
Being larger in size, they tend to pack more power and are usually more reliable. They can be quite pricey (a few thousand dollars or more) depending on size and customizations but are a solid option for a serious collector.
4. Wine Cellar
Building a cellar is a connoisseur’s dream if space and budget are not major concerns. This can be totally insulated and customized to one’s exact specifications, and they can be a real showstopper. Be sure to consult a professional on the best ways to obtain prime conditions.
5. Professional Wine Storage Services
Seeking professional storage is a great option if the aforementioned storage options are not available. Professionals will make sure the wine is properly stored without the stress of maintaining one’s own cellar.
How Long Does Red Wine Last with a Cork
While red wines like Cabernets, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese can be stored for more than a decade, most red wines are best aged for 3-7 years. The tannin presence within red wines better allows them to age better than most white wines.
There is no hard and fast rule for how long a wine can last in the bottle. It varies a lot by producer, quality level, grape variety, and other factors. Consulting vintage charts is one of the best ways to ascertain a wine’s age-worthiness.
Vintage refers to the year that the grapes were harvested for a specific bottle of wine, and vintage variation can be a major factor in determining the quality and age-worthiness of that bottle.
Wines vary from vintage to vintage, even if the grapes are from the same vineyard or the wine was made using the same production method.
Annual climate factors can affect the final levels of acidity, alcohol, and flavor concentration in the wine, and therefore affect its age-ability.
Vintage charts are a reliable resource for checking on specific years and their readiness for drinking – you don’t want to miss out on the wine’s peak drinkability!
The better the vintage and the higher quality the wine is from the outset, the more age-worthy it is. These charts are often available directly from producers or wine publications.
Red wine varieties that tend to be the most age-worthy (for a decade or more) include Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese.
These are wines with structure, whether from acid, tannin, alcohol, or sweetness, and must be from a quality producer in a good vintage to have the most aging potential. How do you know when to open a precious aged bottle of wine? For high-quality wines, think of a bell curve.
There is a slow, gentle rise in maturity and complexity, followed by a period of peak drinkability, before the wine heads down the curve and starts to wane, symptoms of which include loss of color, concentration, and flavor. For most wines, even those intended for aging, 30 years and beyond is getting dicey.
When in doubt, consult a professional. There are wine consultants available for hire to advise on everything from storage conditions to the age-worthiness of a particular wine or vintage. Make an investment in protecting your investment!
How Long Does White Wine Last with a Cork
Most white wines should be drunk within 2 years of purchase but sweeter or fortified white wines can age for 5-10 years. Because white wine lacks the key aging factor tannin found in red wines, they will not age nearly as well across the board.
In general, white wines are considered to have shorter life spans than their red counterpoints. Most white wines do not have high levels of tannin, one of the key factors when aging red wine. However, white wines with high levels of sugar and acid can age beautifully – Riesling is a great example of this.
In high-quality Riesling, the flavors of fresh peach and lemon mellow with time, as the signature petrol becomes more prominent, the fruit becomes more reminiscent of marmalade, and the sugar evolves into notes of honey and toast.
An aged Riesling that has been properly stored can be an ethereal drinking experience – and Rieslings can age for years or even decades.
This principle holds true for many of the world’s famous botrytized sweet wines – Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Sauternes from Bordeaux, and Tokaji from Hungary are all examples of age-worthy white wines.
There are some high-quality dry white wines that can also age – Chardonnay from Chablis in Burgundy, France is a great example, along with white Rioja, Trebbiano, and Sémillion.
In both these sections regarding the longevity of red and white wines, the focus is on the still wines of the world. Sparkling and fortified wines (such as Champagne and Port) have their own set of aging rules – but both can be aged, and the general storage guidelines remain the same.
Fortified wines have been known to age for centuries and maintain their integrity, and aged high-quality Champagne is a real treat – the wine loses its effervescent, but the flavors develop and intensify.
Bottle Orientation & Impact on Wine with Cork
Bottles of wine sealed with a cork should always be stored on their side (horizontally). This ensures that the wine inside the bottle is in constant contact with the cork which is important for the aging of your wine.
If the cork dries out, it allows more air into the bottle and oxidizes the wine, leading to premature aging of the wine and potential spoilage. A dry cork also allows the wine to seep out, which can be messy, but also a total waste of delicious wine.
For a much more in-depth article on this important topic, be sure to read this helpful article published a few months ago on wine bottle orientation.
How Different Types of Corks Impact Wine Storage
Natural Corks vs. Synthetic Corks
A natural cork is a good indication the producer meant for this particular bottle of wine to be age-worthy. Conversely, a synthetic cork implies a wine meant for early consumption and will not benefit from long-term aging.
Natural corks at their best convey not only a sense of quality but of nostalgia and tradition. As previously mentioned, some corks on the commercial market are not actually cork at all, but rather made from synthetic materials.
A collector can always reach out directly to the producer or other wine experts if they are unsure about the aging potential of a specific wine.
The potential of a wine being ‘corked’ is probably the biggest fear factor when aging wine with a natural cork stopper. Cork taint (also known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA) can be identified as a musty, garage-like, or wet newspaper smell upon opening a bottle. TCA is a fungus that grows in natural cork products, and so far scientists have not been able to eliminate the problem.
An uptick in the occurrence of corked bottles is what led manufacturers to explore alternatives such as screw tops. The overall probability of a corked bottle is thought to be about 5%, so despite the hype, the risk is relatively low. A good producer will replace a corked bottle for you.
A crumbling or overly delicate cork can also be a concern, especially when opening a decades-old bottle. If the wine has been stored correctly, it should not have dried out, but like many antiques, it can still be quite fragile. Using a special corkscrew called an ah-so can be really helpful in the process of removing a delicate cork.
These are not actually corkscrews, but rather a device that has two long prongs that fit between the cork and the sides of the bottleneck, gently prying the cork out without puncturing it.
Should a cork crumble during the removal process, decanting through a strainer can remove any cork bits from the wine?
Storing wine with Corks vs. Screw Caps
Screw caps are better suited for wine meant to be stored short-term whereas corks help wine age better long-term as they allow small amounts of oxygen into age the wine.
The first wave of screw caps provided an airtight seal, which actually proved to be a detriment to the model – as discussed, the slow transmission of oxygen through the cork is part of what helps the wine evolve in the bottle.
This is fine for bottles meant for early drinking that will not be subject to long-term storage, but not so much for wines meant to age. Some screw cap manufacturers now add micro holes and/or different cap liners to mimic cork and allow for slow oxygen intact.
While some scientists argue that the completely sealed screw caps allow for better aging by creating an inert environment, most agree that oxygen plays an important role.
When storing wine closed with a screw cap, be sure to know which type of screw cap is involved to better understand the aging potential of the wine.
The majority of the aging guidelines above still apply. The possibility of the cork drying out is no longer a concern, so bottles can typically be kept upright. Temperature, vibrations, and UV light must still be taken under consideration to prevent the wine from being damaged.
Should You Use Wine Stopper or Shove Back in Cork to Store Opened Wine?
Opened (but unfinished) wine could be funneled back into the bottle and stoppered, either with the cork or another stopper solution.
If the wine is older, the cork might be pretty fragile and crumble upon being shoved back into the bottle. In those cases, a silicone stopper is the better bet. If opening a special older bottle and going through the decanting process, the best option is to invite some fellow wine lovers over and enjoy the whole bottle at its peak.
There are several inexpensive ‘vacuum seal’ systems available commercially, but these are best avoided. While yes, the vacuum method can help preserve an open bottle of wine, it can also suck out the aromatics in the process – and a wine that has mostly lost its bouquet isn’t really worth saving anyway.
A Coravin system may be a better option if you are regularly not finishing open bottles. A Coravin is a device that allows for a portion of the wine in a bottle (from a small taste to a glass or more) to be poured without removing the cork.
The wine removed from the bottle is then replaced with an inert gas, which protects the remaining wine in the bottle from being oxidized.
The bottle can continue to be stored for weeks or even months after. These systems can be pricey (a few hundred dollars or more, depending on the model) but compared to dumping hundreds of dollars of spoiled wine down the drain, it’s a steal.
Yes, there are more considerations to think about when storing wine with a cork, especially in the long term – but the reward can also be so much higher!
Oxford Companion to Wine entries on ‘cork’ ‘bottle aging’ ‘cork taint ‘oxygen transmission rate’ ‘screwcaps’