Would you buy a £230 bottle of champagne that's been left under hot lights at 22c? Jim Budd woudln't. He finds leading retailers selling wine at well above the recommended temperatures.
With the price of many fine wines soaring, we wanted to find out whether wines costing more than £100 are being treated by retailers with the respect that their price tags deserve. What are the chances that wine lovers will be disappointed by their purchases, once opened, because shop conditions are too warm or the wines have been placed beneath hot lights? There is a consensus that wine on the shelf should be kept cool, as Isabel Graham-Yooll, associate director of the Jeroboams & Milroy’s of Soho chain in London, explains. ‘Jeroboams aims to keep all wines at cellar temperature (10- 15˚C) and out of direct sunlight. We use air conditioning, and shops have awnings to protect wines from direct sunlight. Artificial lights are a challenge, but we use bulbs that generate less heat and we try to aim the beams away from bottles.’ All very encouraging, and Robert Boutflower, of regional merchant Tanners, concurs. ‘Staff monitor stock so that it doesn’t get “stuck” in one position on the shelf, and the shops are all smallwindowed with low-watt lighting. We have air conditioning in our Hereford shop, while other branches are naturally cool or helped by the proximity to airconditioned stores.’
It’s not always quite so straightforward, though. Harrods was once famous for keeping expensive wines in poor conditions, as Decanter’s consultant editor
Steven Spurrier recalls from his time running its wine department in the early1990s. ‘The temperatures in the wine department were OK – not great, but
OK. The problem was in the cellars. On my second day, I bought an industrial thermometer and an instant camera and put a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 beside the thermometer, which read 26˚C. I took the photo to Mr Al Fayed’s office and told him that if it fell into the hands of the press, they may as well shut down the wine department. The following day, they began to install air conditioning.’ In 1998/99, Harrods moved its wine department to the basement. Previously the wine store had been on the ground floor in decidedly warm conditions, with fine wines tepid to the touch. The finewine section is air-conditioned, as its wine marketing manager Harriet Waugh explains. ‘We have temperaturecontrolled cellars of 12-14˚C and shop floor of 17-18˚C in the fine-wine room. Wines are rotated regularly on the shelves. If machines break down, they are usually reported and dealt with in a couple of hours. Temperatures should not go above 18˚C.’
Berry Bros & Rudd has a similar policy, according to its London shop manager Adam Holden. ‘As far as possible we keep the temperature constant. Although we cannot maintain cellar temperature, the areas of the shop in
which we display wine are airconditioned to achieve the most important aspect of the temperature, which is consistency. Violent fluctuations in temperature will damage a wine, but if the temperature is a constant 15 or 16˚C, rather than the ideal 10–12˚, it will merely accelerate the maturation process rather than harm the wine.’ Storage away from the retail shelves is equally important. Ian Jarman, of Cooden Cellars in Eastbourne, describes the storage conditions there. ‘All stock not required immediately for the shop floor is kept in the two cellars that we have under the shop. The cellars are cool and mostly dry, with very little natural light.
Artificial lighting is in the form of strip lights, which are mostly left on during working hours. The vast majority of stock is stored in its original cases so that
bottles are not exposed to light, and the stock is stored on pallets so that boxes are not affected by any slight dampness in the Victorian brick flooring. We monitor the cellar, but mainly for dampness.’Hitting the shops During the week of 23 June, I visited a number of wine stores in central London to check conditions – in particular, the temperature of wines on the shelves. I also visited a large Sainsbury’s and a Tesco (see panel). To check temperatures I used a wine thermometer from CellarDine (www.cellardine.co.uk) that slips over a bottle and has a range of 4-22˚C. If a wine’s bottle temperature exceeds 22˚C, the temperature band does not light. The results show that most wines in these London stores are warmer than the retailers would like – those outside chill cabinets are usually around 22˚C, some at 20˚C and very few at 18˚C. This may be inevitable, as Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, wine-buying manager for Waitrose,
acknowledges. ‘The temperature at which our wines are stored is necessarily the ambient temperature of the shop, which is typically 20-24˚ and does not vary very much between night and day, or summer and winter. Most of our wine departments have low-voltage lighting, designed to have a minimal effect on wine.’ To my surprise, I found the warmest bottles in Harvey Nichols Wine Shop,
Knightsbridge. Bottles tested were either on the upper edge of 22˚C or above that and beyond the thermometer’s scale. The coolest wines were at Selfridges, reflecting the care taken in designing its revamped wine store. ‘When we built the new wine shop, lighting and temperature were major concerns,’ says sommelier and wine buyer Dawn Davies. ‘All the wine towers house air-conditioning units, and our fine wines are also in temperaturecontrolled units. The lights in the finewine room are specially designed to keep down heat and damage to wines.’ Some wines were under strong lights,but mainly low voltage, as they were not hot. However, a number of Champagnes and sparkling wines, which are particularly susceptible, were brightly lit. While retailers are obviously aware of the issue, there is evidently room for improvement. I would avoid buying wine that is above 22˚C. Although a short time at 22˚ should not damage a wine too much, it is always worth asking for one from the (hopefully) cooler storage area. It is ironic that, to enjoy most reds sold in London at their best, you will need to chill them once you get them home.
Written by Jim Budd