The Light Giveth and it Taketh Away

We really should be posting about how our white wine is doing outside. But our white wine isn’t outside. Because it hasn’t been cold enough yet. Of course it’s the mildest winter on record. I wonder how tartaric acid crystals taste. I’m probably going to find out.

In the meantime, let me entertain you with a post about wine storage. I mentioned in my last post that a fair average for cellar-worthy whites is about five to seven years (some might go 10). I also mentioned that some reds can easily be kept for 30 years and longer, assuming that your aging conditions are appropriate. But I didn’t dive into the details. By appropriate aging conditions, I mean that controls have been put in place to moderate three things:

  1. Light
  2. Humidity
  3. Temperature

Each deserves its own blog post, so each will get its own blog post. Let’s start with numero uno.

Last January, we renovated our master bedroom. Our house was built in 1900. When we bought it, the closer you got from the earth to the sky, the worse the conditions were. The living room (close to the earth) was totally renovated by the previous owners. We just needed to paint. The master bedroom and master bath on the third floor (close to the sky) were abhorrent. If I ever cornered you at a cocktail party to tell you, in excruciating detail, just how much I hated that bedroom, I really apologize.

What I am trying to say is, it was a major undertaking to renovate. The floors had pulled away from two of the walls.  There was no insulation. There was still a Victorian-era pulley system in place for all of the windows. And horsehair-insulated wiring (it exists). Most of our time, effort, and heartache went into major construction. So, when it came time to purchase the finishing touches, we were looking for a screaming deal. We found one. The northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden is a great part of town to visit if you are in the market for relatively inexpensive antiques. Denova on West 36th Street is one of our merchants of choice. When we went in to search for lamps for our master bedroom, we weren’t disappointed by the selection.

We were only disappointed by ourselves.

We spied fantastic orange, glazed table lamps that day. It was love at first sight. We stood around the store for 45 minutes, trying to convince ourselves that something, anything in our house was orange. Nothing was. We shook our fists at the sky and cursed our past selves at being so short-sighted. We walked out with two black iron lamps instead. We buckled them up in the car for safety, took them home, and enjoyed them, and our renovated room, every day for eight months until the fire.

The black lamps are gone now, but you’ll never guess what. The orange lamps were still at the antique store! Robert got them for me for my birthday. When we move back into the house, our *new* new master bedroom will feature orange. All orange, all the time.

First We Took Them HomeThey Were in Our Room for a WhileNow We Have Orange Ones

Why am I telling you all of this? Because the light giveth and light taketh away. Light and sunshine is so important for winemaking. We need it for photosynthesis to occur. We need it because excessive cloudiness becomes problematic if rain begins to fall, especially during fertilization or harvest. We need it for color development, especially for red varietals. Growers even remove leaves from around grape clusters during the growing season because sun exposure deepens color. We really need light. We really need light all the way up until we don’t need it anymore and never want to see it again – pretty much immediately following harvest.

Light control is critical to ensuring successful long-term wine storage and light comes from the sun and from lamps. That’s right. It’s not just direct sunlight that can ruin your wine, it’s incandescent light from lamps too. I love my new orange lamps, but they will stay far, far away from my 2006 Velvet Glove Shiraz.

Light impacts wines because it adversely reacts with the phenolic compounds. Phenolic compound is a technical term for any one of several hundred chemical compounds that impact the taste, color, and mouthfeel of wine. This is one answer to a question you may have asked yourself, which is “why is wine in darkly tinted bottles*?” Wine is in darkly tinted bottles because they offer some protection from the light. Let’s call it the first line of defense.

If the bottle is the first line of defense, what’s the second? You. There are special wine refrigerators and even storage units available, but you can successfully store your wine without investing in either of these. Keep wine out of light from the time you purchase it until the time you serve it. If you haven’t been blessed with a cool, dry basement, like most of us in the northeastern United States, you can improvise by using inexpensive wine racks in a safe and secure area. High-traffic areas are not safe. Rooms with windows are not safe. A closet is probably your best bet, or inside a cupboard. Just not a cupboard inside your kitchen. Your wine will not like the wild temperature variations.

If you are lucky enough to have a wine cellar, put your cellar lights on a timer. If you forget to turn off the lights, the timer will do it for you. To the extent that you can, utilize low-wattage, non-heat emitting lights rather than fluorescent lighting.

*Some wines are bottled in clear, light green, and blue colored bottles. These are more vulnerable to light. Extra precautions should be taken for storage. You might also want to try to deduce what the winemaker’s motivation was in using a lighter bottle. If the answer is “marketing”, pass.

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