Wine Refrigerators and Wine Cellars:
A wine refrigerator is intended for short-term storage, its primary purpose being to store wine at its proper serving temperature (which depends on the type of wine).
Wine cellars (or upmarket wine cabinets) are intended for the long term-storage of wine; they are designed to keep wine at its optimum ageing temperature. In addition, they minimise temperature inconstancy, create a relative humidity of about 70% and provide protection from vibrations and ultraviolet light.
With this in mind, how long should you keep wine in a wine refrigerator? A year at most. Use a wine refrigerator to store wines that are ready to drink at their optimum serving temperature - not to age wines for ten years!
Sadly the distinction between wine refrigerator and wine cellar is blurred these days as people continue to use wine refrigerators as a low cost substitute for high-end wine storage cabinets. Those who engage in this practice are setting themselves up for a fall - firstly, most wine refrigerators are unreliable and you'll be lucky if it lasts even 5 years. Secondly, wine refrigerators do not live up to the cardinal rule of long-term wine storage: maintaining a stable temperature. A wine refrigerator does not regulate a consistent temperature to the standards of a dedicated wine cabinet, and variations over the long-term will result in the quality of the wine deteriorating.
The majority of wine coolers do not control humidity either, and their relative humidity is usually at about 40%. A select few manufacturers have made attempts to add humidity, but they are few and far between with erratic performance.
Double-paned glass doors do help maintain temperatures through insulation, whilst also affording some protection from UV rays (tinting increases this protection). Vibration is reduced through the use of levelling legs, with top-end models featuring specialised vibration dampeners.
Essentially it all boils down to whether you’re looking for a wine cooler or a low-cost wine cellar – low-cost wine cellars are available that are competitive with wine refrigerators of a similar size. Sadly, whilst they offer far more stable temperatures they too are not likely to last more than five years; it is usually far more cost-effective to invest in a reliable, dedicated wine cellar that will stand up to the test of time.
What to look for in an up-market wine refrigerator:
Most importantly of all you should be looking for a wine refrigerator with a good temperature range, at least 7 to 18 Celsius. This is because the primary purpose of a wine refrigerator is to chill wines to their optimum serving temperature.
A joint study on the effect of fluorescent light on wine by the University of California’s Department of Enology and Viticulture found that although wine bottled in green glass was protected slightly “a significant difference in aroma was produced after 18 hours and 31.1 hours of exposure, respectively, in the still and sparkling wines. In flint glass, significant differences in aroma were produced after 3.4 hours and 3.3 hours respectively, in the still and sparkling wines.” Clearly the most likely danger is from UV light, unless the cooler shuts down completely and the wine cooks (26 Celsius +).
The majority of wine coolers are supposed to operate in a room temperature environment. It is risky to operate a wine refrigerator that is subjected to extreme temperatures (i.e. outside or in garages/sheds); a wine cooler under stress cannot regulate temperatures effectively, and may fail entirely.
Fluctuations in wine coolers cannot be avoided entirely; therefore, the best way to off-set this is to fill your wine refrigerator full of bottles. Although the refrigerator will take longer to reach the proper temperature, the bulk of wine bottles will act as a cooling block that stabilises the internal temperature of the cooler.
Damage caused by corks drying out or a lack of humidity can take place over a matter of months and, although producers have tried to introduce humidity into their coolers, this is largely inevitable – wine should not be stored in wine refrigerators for long stretches of time.
Compressor and Thermoelectric systems:
There are three main parts in a cooling system: the evaporator, compressor and condenser. The evaporator or ‘cold section’ is the part where the pressurised refrigerant is allowed to expand, boil and evaporate. During this shift from liquid to gas, heat is absorbed. The compressor acts as the refrigerant pump and recompresses the gas to a liquid. The condenser expels the heat absorbed at the evaporator plus the heat produced during the compression into the environment.
Thermoelectric coolers are heat pumps – solid state devices without moving parts, fluids are gases that are based on the Peltier effect. There are a few advantages: firstly, no moving parts mean results in no excessive noise or vibration. With a compressor-based wine cooler you can hear the compressor cycling on and off and you can hear the refrigerant circulating - it is easy to underestimate just how annoying the noise a wine cooler makes can be. In addition, no moving parts means there is much less need for maintenance whilst the lack of CFC refrigerant means they’re more environmentally friendly.
Thermoelectric coolers use less energy and the absence of an on-off cycle means they have smaller temperature variations and more precise temperature regulation.
Single and Dual Zone Refrigerators:
Predictably, a single-zone refrigerator has a single temperature sensor and temperature setting for the entire cooler. This straightforward solution is fine if you have one type of wine you want to chill, but it’s extremely restrictive.
A dual-zone refrigerator has independent temperature controls and displays for each zone. A good dual-zone will allow a full temperature range in each zone.
Given that you shouldn’t be storing wine in a wine cooler for more than a year, how much wine do you need chilled and ready for drinking? You can estimate by multiplying the amount of wine you drink a week by 52 – one bottle a week means a 52 bottle capacity, two bottles a week means a 104 bottle capacity.
Naturally, if you already have long-term storage options available (e.g. a wine cabinet, rental space in a wine storage facility or even your own cellar) then it doesn’t have to be particularly spacious.