The unsettling story of an upright wine bottle
There’s that decades-old bottle of wine I hang on to for purely sentimental reasons. I wouldn’t normally bring it up, but it’s just that its good form has been puzzling me.
Like any other memento deemed worth showcasing, my keepsake, too, is displayed in full view, proudly upright with the cork facing up, rather than resting on its side as wine that repays cellaring is kept.
Bottles meant for consumption are conventionally stored sideways so as to keep their cork moist. This is believed to prevent the liquid from evaporating and air getting inside the bottle, which would spoil the wine.
Strangely enough, judging by the headspace between the cork and the wine, very little volume has vaporised from my vinous relic despite the fact that it has stood upright for ages.
The fill level is a telltale of a bottle’s health. It’s measured by looking at the space between the cork’s bottom and the edge of the wine.
Well now, the void headspace in my 75cl burgundy-shaped bottle is less than three centimetres and for wines that are like mine older than 20 years that’s considered a sign of excellent cellar conditions.
You might think my bottle is a fluke. But, as it happens, there’s unsettling scientific reason to consider.
Everyone in the trade agrees that wine bottles are best laid down, ideally in a humid cellar to keep the cork swollen to act as an airtight seal inside the bottle neck to keep the wine in and its greatest enemy, the oxygen in the air, out. Except now it turns out that it is not...
According to Miguel Cabral, R&D director at cork manufacturer Amorim, storing wine bottles on their side makes no difference to the moistness of their corks. If anything, it may hasten their deterioration.
Citing previous scientific research by Skouroumounis et al. from the Australian Wine Research Institute, Cabral said that the ullage of a sealed bottle is so saturated with moist vapour that there is no need to place it horizontally to keep the cork wet.
When I first learned of this, I was hesitant to accept the idea since it totally contradicts the practice of storing wine as we know it.
But engineer friends reassuringly concur: the cork is influenced by the extremely high humidity inside the bottle. It won’t dry out if you store the bottle upright, and the humidity of the ambient, like in a damp basement, has little or no effect.
Cabral argues that having the stopper soaked by wine for a long time might actually quicken the weakening of the cork’s cell structure. This could cause older wet corks of level-cellared bottles to shrink at the expense of the wine’s quality.
Whereas the bottle orientation may not matter, the same can’t be said of temperature, which is the most important variable in the evolution of wine in bottle.
According to the original study, even without significant oxygen ingress, heat and temperature fluctuations encourage unfavourable chemical reactions which are likely to cause undesirable changes to the wine’s colour, composition and taste.
If indeed correct, the research would dispel the notion that a damp cellar is wine’s ideal resting place. Any nook in a constantly cool room, even my display cabinet of curiosities, seems fine, provided bottles are kept away from direct sun rays and incandescent light, which will adversely affect your wine.
Georges Meekers is Delicata’s head of sales and an award-winning wine writer.