To the uninitiated, the idea that wine needs its own refrigerator can seem as preposterous as the idea of a closet exclusively for shoes (and yet…). However, just as every Korean household has a separate kimchi refrigerator, the wine lover household needs a separate wine refrigerator because a normal refrigerator’s conditions are not ideal for fostering gentle evolution and because if a leak occurs nothing else inside will survive unsullied (though perhaps the latter applies mainly to kimchi).
Why you need a wine fridge
For wine to mature correctly, storage conditions ought to be as close as possible to an underground cellar in northern Europe. The temperature should be cool but not frigid and, crucially, very stable. The humidity should be relatively high (60% +/- 10%). There should be no disturbance from light or vibration. The vicinity should contain nothing malodorous. Bottles should have space to lie horizontally undisturbed for as long as their owners can hold off drinking them.
Many of these conditions, which are approximated as closely as possible in a wine refrigerator (or “cabinet”), are aimed at keeping the cork seal intact. For example, humidity doesn’t affect the wine per se, but in an arid environment the cork will dry out and lose its elasticity, allowing oxygen to leach into the bottle too quickly. On the other hand, humidity is not kind to labels, which is why saran-wrapped bottles of DRC and Pétrus, revolting as they look, are quite a common sight in high-end wine shops.
Temperature affects both the cork and the wine itself––at a temperature of 28ºC or more, the cork seal will be broken and wine can actually leak out of the bottle. However, at this extreme point it is not so much a question of whether your wine is salvageable as whether you should add it to the Coq au Vin or use it as salad dressing. Most sensible wine storage stays below 20ºC. As alluded to above, what wine despises is sudden temperature spikes; its many substances held in fragile equilibrium can be thrown out of solution by sharp highs or lows. Those ominous looking sparkly crystals you sometimes spot in the bottom of whites stored in the fridge are just organic acids that have been forced out of solution.
Vibration can likewise trigger unpredictable chemical reactions such as a reduction in certain acids and aromatic compounds, leaving your treasured bottles stripped of their specialness. Light can cause so-called “light strike,” which is a particular risk for clear bottles that do not block out enough UV (Cristal, we’re looking at you). Since some UV exposure is inevitable, you should hang onto the amber-coloured cellophane that most conscientious producers of wine in clear bottles provide.