How to buy the best wine cooler
By Patrick Gallagher
Know your pinot noir from your zinfandel? It could be time to buy a wine cooler. Use this guide to help you find the best wine cooler for you and your wine collection.
What is a wine cooler?
It's a specially designed refrigeration appliance used to keep wine stored at the ideal temperature prior to serving. Storing and serving wine can be a bit of a complex art form, but if done correctly you can be sure of getting the best out of your bottles.
Do I need a wine cooler?
If you're seriously pondering this question, then the chances are you have enough interest in wine to make buying a wine cooler a sound investment.
If you're taking the time to buy and try a variety of wines, it's worth experiencing them at their best. Serving wine at the correct temperature will allow you to fully experience its flavours, aromas and body.
If you tend to just wash your steak down with a couple of glasses of any old plonk now and then, a wine cooler probably isn't for you.
How much does a wine cooler cost?
The price range for wine coolers is the widest you'll see for any refrigeration appliance, so there really is something to suit every budget. When deciding how much to pay, you should be guided by how expensive your wine collection is.
For example, there's little point in paying £3,000 for a wine cooler if the wines inside it collectively cost less than £250.
You'll have to pay more for a larger capacity and for features more commonly found in high-end wine cabinets. But if you just want to keep your supermarket bought, soon-to-be-drunk wines at the right serving temperature, you need not pay more than £200.
Prices start from as low as £55 for a single temperature zone, freestanding model with capacity for eight bottles. They can reach as much as £3,000 for a built-in, triple-temperature-zone model packed with features to help keep your wine in the best condition. A vast array of models of differing sizes, capacities and features sit between these two extremes.
Below is a rough guide to what you might reasonably expect within each price range:
£55-£200: a single temperature zone, freestanding model with capacity for between 7-35 bottles. It may come with UV-protected glass, but is unlikely to have many other features.
£200-£500: within this price range you'll begin to see models with capacity for up to 50 bottles. Smaller capacity built-in models also become available at this point. Above £350 and you can begin to expect anti-vibration features and UV-protection glass as standard. Spend more than £450, and models with dual-temperature zones become available.
More than £500: this is where the serious wine enthusiast will want to start looking. Triple-temperature zones are common in this price range, as are a lot of the features highlighted above. Once you reach £1,500 you should expect to have most, if not all, of the best features.
How wide is a wine cooler?
Wine coolers range from 15cm to 70cm in width. But most models tend to be around 60cm wide.
What's the difference between a wine cooler and a wine cabinet?
As a general rule, a wine cooler is a short-term storage appliance used to keep wines at an ideal serving temperature. Different types of wine have specific serving temperatures that will allow you to appreciate them at their best. For white wines this ranges between 7-11°C, while for reds it's between 12-19°C.
You will often find wine coolers with dual, and even triple-temperature zones, which allow you to store reds, whites and Champagnes all at their unique serving temperatures.
But neither of these temperature ranges is suitable for the long-term storage and maturation of wine, which experts acknowledge is around 13°C. Of course, it's possible to set a wine cooler to this ideal long-term storage temperature, but these appliances don't always have the additional features needed to keep wine safe and secure over time.
Wine cabinets are long-term storage appliances used to keep reds and whites safely stored at a temperature of around 13°C. They usually have just one temperature zone, which reflects their primary use as a long-term storage unit. They also tend to have much larger capacity and be more expensive than wine coolers.
In addition to temperature fluctuations there are three additional factors that can ruin the quality and flavour of wine – light, vibrations and low humidity – and they need to be managed. This becomes absolutely crucial if you are storing for years, rather than months, before drinking.
Most wine cabinets have sophisticated systems that accurately control humidity levels, eliminate vibrations, block UV light, and manage the impact of external temperature fluctuations.
But only the most expensive wine coolers will have the full spread of features that control these elements.
This slight overlap of features and functions can lead to confusion when deciding whether to opt for a wine cooler or cabinet.
If you have a selection of expensive vintage or collectible wines, and aren't able to have them professionally cellared, then you should look at a wine cabinet instead of a wine cooler.
What type of wine cooler should I buy?
Leaving budget aside for the moment, there are three key questions you need to answer to help decide which wine cooler will best suit your needs:
1. How much wine are you planning on storing? This will give you an idea of the sort of bottle capacity to look for.
2. Where is your wine cooler going to be located? This will help you choose between a freestanding, built-in or integrated wine cooler.
3. Do I need a single or dual-temperature zone wine cooler? If you exclusively favour reds or whites you'll be able to stick to a single-temperature-zone model. If you have an equal amount of both, or if you're contemplating keeping some bottles at storage temperature and others at service temperature, then you might need a dual or triple-temperature-zone model.
How much wine are you planning on storing?
If you're building a collection you probably want to aim for a model with 25-50% more capacity than the number of bottles you currently have. It's safer to have more space than you need and not use it, than need it and not have it.
If, on the other hand, you tend to have a high turnover of bottles – buying and serving them within a few months of each other – capacity might be less of a consideration.
Most wine coolers you'll find at electrical appliance retailers on the high street won't have room for more than 50 bottles anyway. That should be enough for most people. But if you anticipate needing a lot more room than that you will have to check out a specialist retailer to see a full range of high-capacity wine coolers and wine cabinets.
Where is your wine cooler going to be located?
Knowing where you want to put your wine cooler, and how much room you have, will help you choose between a freestanding, built-in or integrated model.
Freestanding wine coolers
These are the most widely available and cheapest type, and you can put them anywhere in your house. Because there are no restrictions on where they sit, they are capable of having taller and wider dimensions than built-in models, which means they can potentially have capacity for upwards of 150 bottles.
If you do opt for a freestanding model, you should keep it where the ambient temperature doesn't fluctuate too much – so not in the garage. Basically, the same considerations you would apply to positioning a standard refrigerator also apply to a wine cooler.
Built-in wine coolers
These have the advantage of giving that neat finished look to a kitchen. They are more expensive than freestanding models and because they usually have standardised dimensions, there are limits on how many bottles they can store. If you have a growing collection of bottles, a built-in wine cooler probably isn't for you.
Integrated wine coolers
These are usually fitted into a unit at around chest height. They don't tend to have the largest bottle capacity and you'll probably need a kitchen refurb to fit one in. They won't really be suitable if you have a large or expanding collection.
Countertop wine cooler
You'll probably only fit a maximum of 12 bottles in a countertop cooler (more usually six to eight bottles) but they're an option for people who are really limited on space.
Do I need a single or dual-temperature-zone wine cooler?
How many temperature zones you need largely depends on what you're using your wine cooler for: storage, serving or both?
If you heavily favour just one type of wine (just reds or just whites), and want to keep your bottles at serving temperature, then a single-zone wine cooler will be just fine.
If you are just using your wine cooler for storage – assuming it has the additional features required to safely enable this – then again a single-zone model will be fine.
If your collection includes reds and whites, then you will want a dual-temperature-zone wine cooler.
Though more expensive, a dual-temperature-zone model gives you greater flexibility. It means you can have a section for ready-to-serve white wine, and another for either storage or ready-to serve red wine.
Some of the more expensive wine coolers on the market will have three temperature zones. These allow you to store your soon-to-be-drunk reds and whites at serving temperature, and your collectibles at storage temperature.
Alternatively, you could use the three zones to keep reds, whites and Champagne all at serving temperature; Champagne is best served a little cooler than white wine.
What wine cooler features should I look for?
UV-resistant glass doors: protective glass on the cooler doors will help to limit the damaging effects of UV rays on your wine. Ideally, you'll be able to install your wine cooler in a place that is out of the path of direct sunlight, but if that's not possible you definitely need to buy a cooler with this feature. It's possible to buy a wine cooler with a solid door, but they're not as widely available as windowed models.
Humidity controls: if a wine is exposed to low levels of humidity for an extended period it can dry out the cork. This can allow air into the bottle, which can ruin your wine. Humidity controls allow you to manage the amount of moisture in the air inside the wine cooler, helping to ensure the integrity of the cork.
Anti-vibration system: some models feature a system in the compressor, or occasionally in the structure of the cooler, that minimises micro-vibrations and noise. This can be a reassuring feature for the dedicated wine enthusiast, as over time even micro-vibrations can have a negative effect on the wine's colour, flavour, and body.
The four enemies of wine: temperature variations, vibration, light and low humidity
Charcoal air filter: this filters the air entering the cooler, preventing odours from affecting the taste of your wine. Air filters can also help reduce the build up of dust inside the wine cooler. It's recommended that they be replaced every 6-12 months.
Touch controls, digital displays and smart functions: these look a bit sleeker and make the cooler a bit easier to use. Smartphone-compatible wine coolers are also now available, allowing you to control the temperature from afar.
Door lock: keeps your collection of wines safe and secure from inquisitive children, experimental teens and jealous sommeliers.
Interior LED lighting: this should come as standard in all wine coolers, as LEDs only emit very low levels of the UV light that can cause your wine problems.
Reversible doors: just as they do with a conventional refrigerator, reversible doors give you more choice on where to position your wine cooler.
Upright storage space: this allows you to place opened, but unfinished, bottles back in the wine cooler without the fear of them potentially leaking while on their sides. It's an uncommon feature, though, and you're unlikely to find it in many coolers.
Temperature alarms and memory function: alarms will sound to let you know if the door has been left open, or if the temperature inside the cooler has dropped below the set temperature. A memory function will remember the set temperature and restore the cooler back to it following a loss of power.
Height and width-adjustable shelves: the shelves in most wine coolers are designed to fit a standard 750ml Bordeaux shape bottle. However, some wines – such as pinot noir – are usually found in a slightly wider Burgundy-style bottle. If your collection includes Champagne, magnums or even bigger bottles, then adjustable shelving is an absolute must.
Wooden and sliding shelves: you'll usually find these inside mid-range and high-end models. Metal racking can sometimes lead to scratched bottles and torn labels, so wooden shelves are preferred by serious collectors. Sliding shelves make it easier to see and remove bottles from your collection.
Why it's important to serve wine at the correct temperature
Serving wine at the correct temperature can greatly improve its flavour. A wine cooler will allow you to keep your wines at the right serving temperature so you can take them off the shelf and drink them immediately. There are actually some very good reasons why wines are served at different temperatures.
The contrast in the chemical composition of reds and whites mean their sensory traits, and your perception of them, are markedly different. Temperature has an effect on the varied compounds in reds and whites, so it's important to get it right when serving.
What temperature should I serve white wine?
White wines are best served at a temperature somewhere between 7-11°C, depending on the grape variety (or varieties) that the wine has been made from. The lower temperature helps accentuate the acidity, enhancing the freshness and crispness associated with a really good white.
White wines also have higher volumes of organic compounds, such as aldehydes and terpenes, which at lower temperatures can fill the head of the glass with the fruity aromas that can improve your wine drinking experience.
If the temperature gets too cold the flavours become dulled. Too warm and the freshness is lost.
White wines – recommended serving temperatures:
7ºC: sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio
8ºC-9ºC: chardonnay, riesling
9ºC-10ºC: sauternes, semillon
What temperature should I serve red wine?
Red wines have higher levels of tannins and polyphenols, and these are better tasted at slightly higher temperatures. At cooler temperatures the aromas won't fill the head of the glass so well, and the tannins and polyphenols can begin to feel harsh in the mouth, too. You'll also get too much acidity coming through if the wine's cold.
On the other hand, if you serve reds too warm the alcohol in the wine will begin to dominate and overpower the wine's subtle fruit flavours. Contrary to popular belief and practice, room temperature is usually a little too warm for serving reds. It's actually better to serve them a little cooler, because as they warm in the glass they begin to release those excellent aromas.
Red wines – recommended serving temperatures:
12ºC-14ºC: beaujolais, merlot
14ºC-16ºC: burgundies, pinot noir, chianti, rioja, zinfandel, malbec
17ºC-19ºC: bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz
We asked a panel of wine experts to taste test a range of affordable supermarket wines. See what they thought was the best red wine.
Can I keep white wine in the fridge and red wine in a cupboard?
Possibly, but not for too long. Wine is a fragile, sensitive drink that can be severely impaired by exposure to the wrong conditions, and the temperature in a standard fridge is far too cold for storing white wines for very long. Plus, not only is the temperature inside a refrigerator too cold for wine storage, it's also way below the ideal serving temperature. So even if you do keep a bottle of white in the fridge ready for immediate consumption, you'd do best to take it out a little bit before serving to give it time to warm up properly.
The humidity in a fridge is also too low, which overtime can result in a dried out cork. Add to that the potential risk of strong odours from leftover food affecting your wine, and it becomes clear why it's really not an ideal solution for wine storage.
Similarly, keeping your reds in a kitchen cupboard for too long isn't the best option as over time as fluctuating temperatures can negatively impact the flavour and structure of your wine. What's more, reds are best served a bit cooler than room temperature. If you are keeping them in a cupboard or store room it's advisable to give them 15-30 minutes in the fridge prior to serving.
Make sure you have a fridge that can chill quickly by checking out our fridge reviews.
How do I make a wine cooler drink?
Just wanted a quick recipe for making a wine cooler drink and are slightly disappointed you've come this far and haven't found one? Sorry, but thanks for sticking with us.
There are a number of ways of making a wine cooler, some far more intricate and exciting than others, but here's the simplest recipe.
Step 1: Grab a bottle of red wine (something cheap, not that 1865 Chateau Lafite Rothschild you've been saving) and empty it into a large pitcher.
Step 2: Pour in around 600ml of fizzy lemonade.
Step 3: Add some lemon slices and a bit of fresh mint.
Step 4: Serve chilled.