Wine is not just a wonderful drink and an excellent companion to many different meals, it is often an investment. Whether you are keeping bottles to sell in the future, or so they will age perfectly and be even more robust and flavorsome, properly storing your wine is an important consideration.
For as long as cork has been used to seal the bottles after the wine has been poured into them, it has been common knowledge that you should lay wine on its side if you are going to keep it for any significant length of time.
However, modern research and studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case. So, in light of this new recent knowledge, let’s have a look at how long wine can be stored upright, and whether laying bottles down is even actually necessary after all.
Why is Wine Stored on Its Side?
While the idea of putting a bottle of wine on its side for long-term storage is relatively well-known, the reasoning behind it is not. While some people think that it is for ease of storage, and others will tell you it’s related to the sediment that can develop over time, the actual reason is fairly simple.
Conventional wisdom tells us that putting a bottle of wine horizontally keeps the cork that seals the bottle moist, thanks to its constant contact with the liquid it is keeping contained. This keeps the cork moist, and so helps to prevent it from shrinking or drying out, which supposedly would make the cork more porous. A porous cork would allow air to enter the bottle, and the oxygen in that air would cause oxidation of the wine.
At best, oxidation will damage the flavor and character of the wine, reducing its taste and changing the color. At worst, the wine will essentially turn into vinegar. This wine spoilage, or ‘corking,’ is a real issue for oenophiles who keep their bottles for a long time before drinking.
That’s Where You’re Wrong
As is so often the case these days, thanks to the proliferation of information, conventional wisdom has been proven to be partially, if not entirely, incorrect. At least, that’s according to a number of studies that have emerged over the last fifteen years.
The ball began officially rolling thanks to a 2005 study conducted by the Australian Wine Research Institute. They stored a Riesling and a Chardonnay using different seals and in differing orientations. While the focus of the research was the effects that synthetic and screwcap closures had on the flavor of the wine in comparison to traditional cork, the fact that they stored the bottles both horizontally and vertically allowed them to assess what difference that made to the wine.
The verdict, in the words of the researchers, was that: “The bottle orientation during storage under the conditions of this study had little effect on the composition and sensory properties of the wines examined.” In other words, the flavor and bouquet of the wine were both effectively unchanged after spending five years stored upright.
Stick a Cork in It
The humidity of the cork itself is often cited as the main reason for storing bottles so that the cork comes into contact with the wine. Similarly, people also say that the room in which you store your wine should be kept at relatively high humidity so that the other side of the cork that is in contact with the air is also not allowed to dry out.
Both now appear to be wrong. First, according to Dr Miguel Cabral, the head of research for Amorim, one of the world’s top producers of corks for wine bottle, the small bubble of air between the wine and the cork when stored upright is at 100% humidity, and so this keeps the cork moist without requiring direct contact with the wine itself.
Second, storing wine in a humid environment is apparently only necessary if you have a barrel cellar. Standard wine bottles, says Dr. Cabral, keep the cork plenty moist by themselves.
To throw even more doubt upon the traditional approach, he suggested that the constant contact with the acids present in the wine might actually serve to break down the cell structure of the cork, causing it to shrink and so allow more oxygen into the wine, damaging the characteristics and potentially leading to corking.
So Much for Common Sense
How long can wine be stored upright, then? According to recent research, for as long as you want! Keeping wine on its side, while being a practice with a venerable history, is not actually necessary, and in some ways might even harm the sensory profile of your valued wine collection. Research is still ongoing as to the effects on the wine when stored vertically over more extended periods of time.
It’s also worth noting that this is all in regard to wine stoppered by a traditional natural cork. If your wine has a screw top or a synthetic cork, you don’t even need to consider the moisture of the cork to begin with, and so vertical storage would again seem to be an OK way to go.
And if you’re talking about champagne and sparkling wine, upright is also the way to go. So, don’t be thrown off by snobs telling you otherwise, as science has shown that storing your wine upright is in no way worse than horizontal.