The Difference Between Wine Cellars and Wine Refrigerators

It’s a very fine line between the casual wine enthusiast and the serious collector. One moment you’re innocently buying $5 wine at the supermarket, and the next you’re bringing Bordeaux Grand Cru home in your suitcase. As your taste for fine wine evolves and your collection grows, you’ll inevitably need a better place to store those classic wines properly.

The two most popular options for storing fine wine are with a wine cooler or wine refrigerator unit, or in a custom wine cellar. But which one is right for you?

While both are viable ways to store wines, each one is designed for a slightly different job. In this article, we’ll talk about the differences and weigh the pros and cons of each application.

What Are Wine Cellars?

Wine Cellars are the original wine coolers and have been around for hundreds of years. In the old days, the basement had the coolest and most consistent temperature in the house. Most early wine cellars, even among the Victorian elite, consisted of just a few simple shelves to stack bottles on.

Modern storage spaces have come a long way. Now, they can be located anywhere in the home. These custom-built enclosures range in size from a small pantry or closet to full-sized rooms that hold thousands of bottles. Modern cellars are vapor-sealed and use advanced cooling systems to automatically manage the environment. And they’re often works of art, built with luxury materials, lighting, and technology to add to the ambiance.

Wine Cellar with Wine Refrigerators
Custom-built cellars allow for much more controlled storage and aging. The glass doors on either side of this design are zoned at different climates and humidity for specific types of wines.

What are Wine Refrigerators?

Wine refrigerators are self-contained appliances that come ready to use out of the box. A wine refrigerator can range in size from a simple 6-bottle countertop unit to an under-the-counter model, to a 250+ bottle upright cabinet with French doors. For this reason, they’re great for smaller collections and spaces.

A wine fridge uses simple technology to maintain a single, fixed temperature, which can be adjusted manually. A slightly more sophisticated dual-zone wine fridge can keep red and white wines at separate temperatures.

Today’s coolers are stylish and attractive and offer features like programmable LED lighting and even Bluetooth connectivity.

Closeup of a wine fridge at a bar
Wine refrigerators are often more durable and practical, and add a point of interest for bars and restaurants. They’re more suited to storing everyday wines and bottles not meant for the long run.

Which Option is Better for Aging Wine?

Since custom wine cellars have more accurate cooling systems, they’re best for expensive wines that require a very stable environment. Humidity control is essential for corked bottles, which need moisture to age properly. And these professional systems can be more precisely zoned for wines that require different aging environments.

Wine cellars can also offer greater UV protection from sunlight and ambient lighting. The cooling unit is isolated to eliminate vibration; even theft is less an issue in a dedicated space.

The relative simplicity of wine refrigerators makes it less conducive to storing fine wine: For one, they’re known for “hot spots” where the temperature can fluctuate. Dual zone models can be unpredictable and inaccurate. As mentioned, wine fridges typically do not have humidity control. And lastly, staunch collectors claim that vibrations, in this case coming from the compressor unit, can damage wines.

Another issue with wine refrigerators is that depending on the quality of the build, they may not last as long and if they break, allow for fewer repair options.

Storing wine bottles in a wine fridge
More sophisticated dual-zone refrigerators allow for the storage of red and white wines at separate temperatures, for aging and serving. These zones are typically not as accurate as they would be in a professional cellar.

Best Wines Based on Wine Storage Options

Are there specific types of wines that are better suited to each storage format? Yes, and here’s why:

Best Wines for Cellars

A properly built and maintained wine cellar will last a lifetime, which means you can stock it with wines that will, too. While there are some whites that can age (like German Riesling and Chablis), big, bold reds with ample tannins, alcohol, and acids are best for long-term collecting. Some must-haves for any serious cellar:

  • Bordeaux Grand Cru
  • Burgundy Pinot noir
  • Italian Super Tuscans and Barolo
  • Spanish Rioja
  • Australian Shiraz
  • Napa Valley Cabernet

In a well-maintained cellar, these wines can age for 20-30 years or more. How wine ages and which wines have the most aging potential is an important part of any custom wine cellar.

Best Wines for Refrigerators

Wine refrigerators offer less precise control over temperature and humidity, so they’re better suited to wines that don’t require much, if any aging:

  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sauvignon blanc, and Viognier
  • Rosés
  • Accessible, light reds like Pinot noir and Zinfandel
  • Mid-priced red blends with 5-10 years of age

Which Option is Better for Your Home?

This is for you to decide, and will be based entirely on your needs, your means and your lifestyle. This decision also requires some projection into the future: where do you see yourself in five, ten, or more years?

If you’re just starting out and not sure how far you’ll go with your collection, a wine fridge might be enough. Likewise, if you’re limited on space, finances, or plan on moving in the future, wine fridges are relatively portable and replaceable as your lifestyle changes.

If your collection is rapidly expanding and the type of wine you’re buying requires long-term aging, if you see yourself staying in your home for a long time, and if you want the ability to add your own creative flair to the design, then a dedicated storage space or wine cellar is the best option for you. And, as bonus it can actually add value to your home.

Wine Cellar by Focus Wine Cellars
In Victorian times, the wine cellar was usually just a few shelves in the basement of the home. These days, thanks to innovation and technology, the sky is the limit. Photo By: Focus Wine Cellars

Which Option is More Affordable?

In almost every case, a wine refrigerator is going to be more affordable, simply because they’re mass-produced and standalone. They can be purchased at many stores or online. This is the reason why most wine enthusiasts start out with a fridge. While a small countertop model can cost a few hundred dollars, a larger unit with options like stainless steel & glass doors, or even real wood facing that looks like furniture can run upwards of $5,000.

By nature, cellars require more planning, materials, installation, and long-term maintenance, so they’re a bigger investment. All of this adds up, which is why it’s best for more serious collectors. Cellars also require ongoing maintenance and cleaning too. Pricing can range from $7,500 for a small 75-square-foot walk-in, to $180,000 for a large 330-square-foot cellar.

As you can see, there is some crossover between the two categories. Some high-end refrigerator units can cost as much as a modest cellar. So if you find yourself with a budget in this territory, a custom built-in wine cabinet, credenza, wine display, or even an under-the-stairs wine space is actually within reach.

Woman pulling a wine bottle out of a wine fridge
Refrigerators come in all shapes and sizes, and for this reason, they’re a popular choice in homes and apartments with less space.

More Tips for Wine Storage

Whether you go with a fridge or cellar, there are plenty of options out there for every dream and budget. One is not necessarily better than another, rather, different tools for different scenarios.

And if you decide a custom wine cellar or storage unit is the way to go, Wine Guardian can help you with everything from planning to design and of course, the most important part, the cooling unit. Browse our collection of wine cellar cooling units to get started.

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