The cult of the natural

For as long as I can remember in the relatively short life of my wine geekdom, the standard temperature advice for long term storage of wine has read something like: ideally around 12 or 14°C, avoid extremes of heat and cold and diurnal temperature variation, but seasonal temperature variation will cause no damage.

So as I was reading Jasper Morris’s “Inside Burgundy” over Christmas, I was rather surprised to see the idea that “Arguably [natural conditions that vary somewhat from Summer to Winter] is to be preferred: it reflects the rhythm of the earth.”  After my standard sceptical harrumph to such notions, I thought little of it.  Until I stumbled across an article by Steven Spurrier for The Wine Society in the Society News January 2011 where I read something similar: “Today (October 24th) my cellar is 10°C and will descend slowly to 6°C by January, rising to 16°C by August. I feel that such variation suits the wines, as a constant temperature cannot be natural.”  What’s going on here?  Since when did seasonal temperature variations not only be harmless, but become desirable?  Did Jasper plant the idea into Steven’s mind, or does the meme originate elsewhere?  Some biodynamical proclamation perhaps?  I bet there is no basis in empirical evidence.

In the absence of that hard evidence, what might science teach us about temperature and the ageing of wine?  Well, many different complex chemical reactions contribute to the maturing of wine.  Each one will progress at a rate that depends on temperature, and as it takes place the products of the reaction become available for other reactions.  Roughly speaking, if you increase the temperature by 10°C the rate of any chemical reaction will increase by a factor of two, so your wine will mature about twice as fast.  But it is not quite as simple as that.  Because the rate of each reaction will respond to the increase in temperature slightly differently, the paths taken by the reactions will never be the same for wine matured at different temperatures, and they will always result in a different wine.  And if you vary the temperature with time, you will get yet another wine.  How big these effects are I wouldn’t like to say.  You will certainly notice a wine maturing faster at a higher temperature, but the difference between a wine cellared at 5°C for 10 years and one matured at 15°C for 5 years is going to be more subtle.

And what is so natural about laying down bottles of wine in a cellar under a domestic house anyway?  Wouldn’t leaving them lying around outside be more natural, and make the wine even more subject to the rhythms of the Earth?  Does that mean the wine would be even better?  In fact maybe we should abandon the nasty industrial glass bottles and revert to goat skins.

OK, maybe I am reacting to a couple of offhand comments with undue sarcasm.  And I certainly don’t really want to single out Messrs Morris and Spurrier for criticism.  It is a trend in wine writing, and also in society in general, to glorify the natural – man-made artifacts and environments are rejected, and natural is treated as being almost synonymous with good.

Meanwhile I am wondering if I need to adjust the temperature of my Liebherrs for the seasons.  I don’t think I’ll bother, but I fear that future models might come with annual temperature programmes as standard.  Until then, 12°C it is.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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