- What is a Wine Refrigerator?
- Features of the Best Wine Refrigerators and Coolers
What is a Wine Refrigerator?
In order to determine the best wine refrigerator or cooler you need to know what a wine refrigerator is and what it isn’t. A wine refrigerator is not a wine cellar. A wine refrigerator or cooler is a short-term storage device. Its purpose is to store wine at proper serving temperatures which range from 40 to 65°F depending on the type of wine.
A wine cellar or high-end wine cabinet is intended for long-term storage and is designed to keep wine at its optimum aging temperature (55°F for all wines). They must also minimize temperature fluctuations, create a relative humidity of about 70%, protect against ultraviolet light and vibrations.
How Long Should You Keep Wine in a Wine Refrigerator?
Less than a year. A wine refrigerator or cooler should be used to store ready-to-drink wines at their proper serving temperatures, not age wine for ten years.
Wine Cooler or a Low-Cost Wine Cellar?
However, the line between wine refrigerator and wine cellar is blurred because many people use wine refrigerators as a low cost substitute for high-end electric wine cellars and wine storage cabinets like Eurocave and Vinotheque. People who do this are setting themselves up for disappointment. First, most wine refrigerators are notoriously unreliable, you’ll be lucky if it lasts 5 years much less 10.
Second, the cardinal rule of long-term storage is maintaining a stable temperature. Manufacturers like Eurocave maintain temperatures +/- 1°F. Vinotemp, a wine cooler manufacturer states that it’s normal for the temperature in its compressor-based models to fluctuate +/- 5°F. It’s not just Vinotemp that has this problem, most wine refrigerators fluctuate like this especially during a defrost cycle.
Most wine coolers do not control humidity, normally their relative humidity is 40%. A few manufacturers have attempted to add humidity, for example U-Line which states that its models have 50% relative humidity. Danby provides humidity reservoirs in its Silhouette Series (i.e. you fill some plastic containers with water), Franklin Chef has drip trays to collect condensation which are then evaporated by the heat of the compressor. The results of these efforts are erratic.
Most wine coolers have double-paned glass doors which help maintain temperature through increased insulation. They also provide some protection against UV, although some manufacturers add tint for extra protection. Leveling legs help reduce vibration and some high-end wine refrigerators like Marvel have vibration dampeners.
The question is, are you looking for a wine cooler or a low-cost wine cellar? Vintage Keeper (now WineKoolr) for example, made a low-cost ($500 – 750) 100+ bottle wine cellar that was competitive with wine refrigerators of similar size (mostly because it was shipped disassembled). It maintained a temperature of 57°F and 60% humidity. Unfortunately, like most wine refrigerators it was not likely to last more than 5 years (probably why they decided to give the Vintage Keeper brand an update). Fortunately, other manufacturers have gotten into the game, they sell premium wine refrigerators with some wine cellar features or low-cost wine cellars, however you choose to think of it, that are more reliable.
Features of the Best Wine Refrigerators and Coolers
The primary function of a wine cooler is to chill wine to proper serving temperatures. So, a good wine refrigerator should have a decent temperature range, at least 45 – 65°F.
Price per Bottle
A good wine refrigerator should be competitively priced. You want it to have enough features to perform its function adequately, but you don’t want it to be priced significantly above coolers with similar features. The price should be average or below. Price per bottle (total price divided by bottle capacity) is a fairer measure than total price.
How much protection is necessary in a short-term storage device? Well out of the ideal conditions listed above, damage from UV radiation is most likely to occur in a short period of time (hours), so UV protection is necessary, the more the better.
Damage caused by drying corks or a lack of humidity takes place over a matter of months and shouldn’t be a problem as long as the wine is stored for short periods of time, the same can be said for vibrations. Minimizing temperature fluctuations, however, are very important and how well that is accomplished depends on both the use and design of the wine cooler.
For example, most wine coolers are designed to operate in a room temperature environment (i.e. less than 80°F or greater than 65°F). Operating a wine refrigerator in areas subject to extreme temperatures (i.e. outside or in garages or storage sheds) can cause large temperature fluctuations in the cooler, or the cooler can fail completely, unless of course it’s designed for outdoor use which is rare. Typically coolers designed for outdoor use are beverage coolers (i.e. they chill beer, sodas and wine) that have reduced wine storage capacity.
Since the temperature in wine refrigerators normally fluctuate, the best way to protect your wine against the damaging effects is to keep the refrigerator full. A full refrigerator will take longer to get to the proper temperature, but once the wine is at the right temperature it acts as a cooling block and minimizes temperature fluctuations. So the best wine refrigerators need to operate reliably under a full load.
Thermoelectric vs. Compressor
A conventional cooling system contains three fundamental parts – the evaporator, compressor and condenser. The evaporator or cold section is the part where the pressurized refrigerant is allowed to expand, boil and evaporate. During this change of state from liquid to gas, energy (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 compression, into the environment.
Thermoelectric Coolers are heat pumps, solid state devices without moving parts, fluids or gases and are based on the Peltier effect. This design has several advantages: first no moving parts means no vibration and silent operation. With a compressor-based wine cooler you can hear the compressor cycling on and off and you can hear refrigerant circulating. This may seem trivial to some, but one of the most common negative comments about wine refrigerators is the noise they produce. But, don’t expect a thermoelectric to be completely silent, most wine coolers have a fan to circulate air which you can hear turning on and off.
No moving parts means less maintenance, moving parts wear and need to be replaced. This means that thermoelectrics should last longer and be more reliable. Thermoelectrics contain no CFC’s (refrigerant) and therefore are environmentally friendly. The solid state design allows thermoelectrics to take up less floor space (wine towers) and they are also lightweight.
Thermoelectrics use less energy and because they don’t cycle on and off they have smaller temperature fluctuations and more precise temperature control. However, compressor-based systems are more efficient at cooling and can withstand more adverse conditions. But, remember that most wine refrigerators whether thermoelectric or compressor are designed for moderate conditions.
Dual vs. Single Zone Wine Refrigerators
A single-zone refrigerator is self-explanatory, it has a single temperature sensor and temperature setting for the entire cooler. This is fine if you’re chilling primarily one type of wine. However, the temperature in a single-zone wine refrigerator varies from top to bottom (the larger the cooler, the greater the differential). This allows white or sparkling wine to be stored on the bottom where it’s cooler and red wine at the top.
But, it’s unlikely that a single-zone refrigerator will have a twenty degree differential from top to bottom (i.e. 45 – 65°F), and even if it did there’s only one display. A dual-zone refrigerator on the other hand has independent temperature controls and displays for each zone. The best dual-zone wine refrigerators and coolers will allow a full temperature range in each zone (i.e. both compartments can achieve 45 – 65°F, instead of 40 – 55°F in one and 55 – 65°F in the other).
Wine Cooler Size
How much wine do you need chilled and ready for drinking? Remember, a wine cooler is not a long-term storage device and you should not store wine in them for longer than a year. With that in mind, you can estimate the capacity you need by multiplying the amount of wine you drink a week by 52. One bottle of wine a week means a 52 bottle capacity, two bottles a week means a 104 bottle capacity.
If you already have long-term storage (i.e. a wine cabinet or rental space in a wine storage facility) it doesn’t have to be that big. Of course you can always buy wine as you need it and keep the cooler small. If you entertain regularly and need many bottles of wine ready at the same time, you can estimate the bottle capacity you need by dividing the number of guests by 2 (i.e. 2 guests per bottle). So, if you regularly entertain 20 people you need to be able to chill 10 bottles of wine at a time, 50 people means 25 bottles and so on.
Aesthetics and Utility
Do you want your refrigerator to be freestanding or under the kitchen counter? Built-in wine coolers are specifically designed for the latter and have front venting. Some manufacturers like Vinotemp design them to fit the space used for a trash compactor.
Depending on where the refrigerator is kept, the direction the door swings can negatively affect its utility. Many manufacturers have models with reversible doors.
The racks in wine refrigerators are one of their most problematic features. Like standard wine racks, their bottle capacity is based on Bordeaux-shaped bottles. Add some Pinot Noir, Champagne or Magnums and your storage capacity will be significantly reduced. The best wine refrigerators provide universal racking.
Even with Bordeaux-shaped bottles it’s usually a tight fit, making wine racks that slide or pull out very convenient. Aesthetically wood racks are preferred over the much more common chrome (wire) racks, which is why some manufacturers provide wood facings for them. In addition, metal racks inside wine cabinets can scratch bottles and tear labels, and sometimes they can bend out of shape under the heavy weight of the wine bottles. But, actual wood racks inside a wine refrigerator (although available in high-end wine cabinets) is unlikely.
Compared to the warmth of wooden wine racks and wine furniture, wine refrigerators can seem cold and artificial. A great way to make a wine cooler look more homey is to show the wine bottle labels. Displaying their favorite vintages is something oenophiles love to do and now they can with the VinoView wine refrigerator. These refrigerators come with UV protection so you don’t have to hide your prized wine.
Note: For model specific reviews, please go to our Wine Refrigerator Reviews section.