I am assuming here that you have considered the alternatives, and have come to the conclusion that you want a fridge for the long-term maturation of wine. I am not here writing about fridges for holding wine at serving temperature. My advice is based on discussion I have seen on various online forums, and on personal experience with a couple of Liebherr WKr4676 wine fridges.
It is vital to get the size right. Of course the fridge will need to fit into the space available, but it is also important to have some idea of how many bottles you need to house.
You can do a quick back-of-the-fag-packet calculation based on the rate at which you think you will be drinking wines from your fridge, and how many years on average you think each bottle will need to mature. If you drink one a week, and the average time each bottle stays in the fridge is 10 years you will need storage for around 500 bottles, which is 10 years divided by 1 week.
One way of getting by with a smaller fridge is to store wines that do not need to be aged elsewhere, and you can do the same with other wines as a temporary measure to cope with variations in drinking and buying rates. Alternatively, if you get through a lot of mature wine you would probably do better to store most of it off-site in a specialist storage facility, and just use your fridge as a buffer for the contents of the cases you have taken out of storage.
You should bear in mind that the fridge bottle capacity is usually quoted in terms of Bordeaux bottles, and if you mix bottle shapes in your fridge you will not achieve the advertised capacity. I can get about 175 bottles in a fridge that is rated for 196 Bordeaux bottles.
Don’t bother paying for more than one temperature zone. Wines of different types do not need different temperatures for storages, and providing your fridge can hold your wine at around 12-14ºC you will be fine. In fact, if I see a wine fridge being offered with more than one temperature zone it makes me suspicious – either the fridge is really designed for holding wine at serving temperatures, or the manufacturer is adding unnecessary features.
And while on the subject of temperature, be sure to check the range of ambient temperatures your fridge needs, particularly the lower end if you are planning on keeping it in an unheated outhouse. When I bought my fridges, some of the cheaper models were not very good at dealing with low temperatures.
Top-end brands and models offer the possibility of drawers in your fridge. They add to the cost and are not necessarily advisable. Drawers make it a lot easier to access your wine – do not underestimate the effort it takes to dig out a bottle from the bottom of a pile on a wine fridge shelf, even assuming you can remember which shelf it occupies. On the other hand, drawers will severely reduce the number of bottles your fridge can contain. By far the most efficient method from a storage point of view is a stable pile of bottles that is as big as possible.
Also, from a stacking efficiency point of view, you should favour thin wire shelves over more stylish wooden ones. The difference in thickness might only be a few millimetres, but on at least one shelf it will probably be the difference between an extra layer of bottles or not.
External appearance is largely a matter of personal taste, so I will restrict myself here to saying that I personally would not go for a glass-fronted wine fridge, for a number of very different reasons. They tend to be more expensive. They insulate less well. Light is damaging to wine – OK, glass doors use darkened glass which are claimed to prevent light damage, but why not simply plunge your bottles into complete darkness? To use my fridge at full capacity I have to cram bottles in however I can, and the result is not very visually appealing. And my final reason is that they announce to potential thieves that you might have wine worth nicking.
But if you are going to keep the fridge inside your house, and really prefer the aesthetics of a glass door, I’d say go for it.
When I bought my first wine fridge the choice of brands was quite narrow. Eurocave dominated the top end of the market, while Transtherm had similar products but a little cheaper. Then at the lower end of the market, but still offering a credible product for long-term storage, there was Liebherr. Since then, many other names have appeared offering cheaper products, and I find it very difficult to determine if they are designed for, or even suitable for, long-term storage. Often there are no claims or guarantees made on what I would consider to be key questions: Is the fridge vibration free so sediment will settle properly in the wine; and will the fridge maintain a high degree of humidity so the corks will not dry out, while having good ventilation to prevent mould formation. I think I would rather go for a model that is specifically claimed to be suitable for long-term storage, and one that offers technical information to support the claim.
I have never regretted buying my Liebherr fridges and have found their UK agents to be helpful on the couple of times I have had technical queries about the fridges. I have blogged negative comments on the price of their filters, but I suspect Liebherr filters are no more expensive than any other brand. The favourite fridge amongst UK wine geeks appears to be the Liebherr WK5700, largely I think on the basis of the price per bottle. It is a bit of a beast, with all dimensions that little bit larger than a domestic fridge, and few compromises for style. The main reason I chose the WKr4676 over the WK5700 was that at the time the WKr4676′s ambient temperature operating range went a bit lower, but the external size and appearance was also a factor.