Thinking of taking your wine collection to the next level? Master of Wine Sarah Heller explains why a wine fridge is a must-have

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). 

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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. 

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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.

How to choose one

Now you understand the need for special storage, how to choose a fridge? A key point to consider is your lifestyle and level of interest in wine. For the serious wine drinker with ambitions to age or re-sell their collection, purpose-built storage where the ideal conditions are not constantly being disrupted by some thirsty person opening the fridge door is still necessary. If you have external storage but entertain regularly at home, one large (~150 bottle) home wine fridge is sufficient, while if you drink at home only occasionally a 32-bottle model will do. If you’d rather not get external storage, consider going up to 50-bottle fridge to give yourself some space for medium-term storage.  For the casual drinker who simply wants the few bottles they enjoy to be stored properly (good on you!) those cute 12-bottle models that fit between counters or the 8-bottle ones that sit on the countertop are enough to allow you to cater a good party or two. 

The other major point is what you can fit and integrate into your home. For all three wine fridge types––freestanding, built-in and integrated––the fridge will need to be able to draw fresh air in through its base and expel hot air out the top and back. For built-in (under the counter) and integrated (slotted into a wall cabinet) options, this will be up to the installers. For a free-standing unit, you will need to be mindful of not blocking these points or else the unit’s energy consumption and noise production will go into overdrive, reducing its longevity.

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Then, it’s all about the details: glass doors make it easier to quickly spot what’s in the fridge. Pull-out shelves make it easier to grab bottles from the back. Wooden shelves are gentler on labels but can become impregnated with odours or even (heaven forbid) cork taint. Multiple temperature zones are an oft-touted but misunderstood feature in that they’re unlikely to be necessary for maturing different wine styles and are instead mainly helpful for reaching different serving temperatures for red (12-16ºC) vs white and sparkling (10-14ºC). I.e. nice to have but really not essential. More important is a clear, easy to use temperature setting mechanism; if you have small children in the house you want to be sure that it isn’t easily accessible to them (something I learned the hard way).

Finally, you may want to consider environmental impact, both in terms of energy consumption and the noise pollution in your home. A solid door rather than a glass one can lower energy consumption but more important is making sure that the fridge has enough air circulating around it and that you don’t open the door more frequently than necessary. A solid door will also help reduce noise, which will typically be at least 40dB, as will having only one rather than two temperature zones. 

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Which model to invest in

Beyond this, the fridge you choose will come down to the look you like and what’s available in your market. In Asia, Vintec and Eurocave are widely available and have been for many years, something important to bear in mind because if your fridge starts to malfunction (or you suffer something as quotidian as a collapsed shelf) you want to know that the brand has local reps who can help you solve the problem quickly. 

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