Steven Spurrier prefers to keep his wine in a cellar, where temperatures slowly fluctuate, rather than in air-conditioned storage. NATASHA HUGHES asks which approach is best.
Back in Decanter’s January issue, Steven Spurrier mentioned that his wine cellar at home fluctuates in temperature between a chilly 6ºC in winter to a far warmer 17ºC in summer. ‘I much prefer having a cellar where the temperature moves slowly rather than having air-conditioning which brings it down to 12ºC and it stays at 12ºC all the time,’ he said. ‘I think this stuns the wine, whereas my wines live with the conditions.’
This potentially controversial remark goes against the received wisdom that the optimum conditions for wine storage involve keeping it at a rigidly maintained, constant temperature. It could also be interpreted as fighting talk by those involved in the industry who are focused on maintaining our prized wine collections in a chilly but pristine state – the manufacturers and distributors of wine fridges. Surprisingly, however, many of those with the greatest experience of storing wines tend to agree with Spurrier’s viewpoint.
‘Whenever clients speak to me about their cellars, I tell them the same thing,’ says James Price, sales director at Genesis Wines. ‘As long as the temperature change is gradual and doesn’t rise above a certain level, I don’t have a problem with it. All you have to do is look at the cellars of the top domaines in Bordeaux or the Rhône, where summer temperatures are 3–4?C higher than they are in the middle of winter.’
James Payne, head sommelier at London’s Michelin-starred Greenhouse, is in complete agreement. ‘The cellar I worked with at Sharrow Bay [where Payne worked before The Greenhouse] went from about 9?C to 16?C and, during the five and a half years I spent there, I didn’t notice any detrimental effect on the fine wines in terms of either flavour or condition.
‘I think, emotionally speaking, seasonal fluctuation is quite a romantic idea,’ Payne continues. ‘It’s what tends to take place in cellars in town or country houses – the traditional way of storing wine in the UK. In short, slow, incremental change doesn’t cause huge problems – as long as the wine cellar is damp and there’s no vibration the wines should do well.’
Even those who would seem to have a vested interest in contradicting Spurrier’s statement seem to have no bone to pick – with one particular caveat. ‘Any natural environment will fluctuate and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s within a limited spectrum,’ explains Martin Alpren, managing director of Eurocave in the UK. ‘The trouble is that there are very few places in the domestic environment where you can be confident that such conditions exist. For that reason, it’s easier to maintain a constant temperature rather than to regulate a fluctuating environment in such a way as to ensure that it won’t be harmful to the wine.’
‘Wide fluctuations in temperature are no good for long-term storage,’ says Tom King, fine wine manager at Great Western Wine. ‘But for those who want to drink their wines within 10 or 15 years, gradual changes of temperature may help wines to evolve. It’s certainly true that for those wine estates whose cellars are cut deep into the rock and where the temperature hardly changes from season to season, the evolution of the wines seems to progress very slowly.’
The only argument for maintaining your collection at a constant temperature comes from scientist-turned-wine writer Jamie Goode. ‘Although Steven has huge personal experience and is happy with the way the wines age in his cellar, I don’t see the basis for what he’s saying,’ says Goode.
‘No one has done any analysis on this topic, but if you work from first principles it’s clear that the best counsel is to keep wine at a constant temperature,’ he adds. ‘Theoretically, the reactions undergone during wine ageing are influenced quite substantially by temperature, and as the temperature rises, the speed of the reactions increases. We tend to like the way that wine ages in a classic wine cellar, at around a temperature of 11º or 12ºC. And, chemical changes aside, as temperatures fluctuate, the wine will expand and contract, so if the corks aren’t absolutely airtight, the wine will be at risk from oxygen ingress – and those most at risk are older ones whose corks have lost their elasticity.’