What is a Wine Cellar? History and Development

Whether you are a wine aficionado or just a social drinker, the history of the wine cellar is a fascinating one. The development of the human race is linked with the cultivation of grapes into a beverage for common use and celebration. When people began making wine, it was brewed for quick consumption. Once traders began transporting wine over long distances, storage became a necessity. Wine cellars began as humble caves in the ground and have evolved into some of the most sophisticated rooms in the modern home.

What is a Wine Cellar?

What is a Wine Cellar?

A wine cellar is a specialized area meant to store and age wine. Their design has changed over time. Ancient wine cellars were caves or underground areas with natural temperature and humidity regulations that allowed people to store wine without spoilage. Today, wine cellars are highly regulated spaces that control temperature, humidity, light, and ventilation to maintain the quality and flavor of the wine.

Wine cellars have a variety of shapes and sizes. You can choose wine cellars that are as small as cabinets or closets to large rooms and underground grottos. Designers create wine cellar spaces for both homes and business spaces to suit a range of needs.

For a serious wine collector, wine cellars are vital in preserving the wine from exposure to light, heat, and air, all of which can destroy the quality of the wine. Wine cellars are also aesthetic spaces that heighten the elegance of a space and allow for the easy viewing of extensive wine collections.

Brief History of the Wine Cellar

Just as wine has been an inextricable part of the human story for thousands of years, the wine cellar developed alongside this history. Historians trace the wine cellar back to ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Greeks, who all observed that dark environments helped to preserve the flavor and quality of the wine and other food items. These early wine cellars were underground caves or cellars that naturally regulated the temperature and humidity of the air.

Wine was important to the Etruscans and later to the Romans, who conquered them and expanded their dominance over the region of Italy. The Romans began trading wine with their neighbors and began realizing that wine that had been stored in a cool, dark place would mellow and bring a better price.

During the Middle Ages, wine became an even more important part of everyday life as the water in many regions was not clean enough to consume. During this era, wine was stored in barrels or in earthenware jugs. Wine cellars varied by region during this time, but there are common features of typical medieval wine cellars.

Monasteries and castles were the most common sites for wine cellars, as wine-making and trading were expensive endeavors. Builders constructed these wine cellars underground and had stone or dirt walls to best preserve the needed constant temperature and humidity. Many medieval wine cellars featured barrel vault ceilings. The entrances to these rooms were small in order to minimize the light. Cellars were equipped with ventilation shafts to help bring in fresh air to avoid the growth of mildew.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, wine consumption increased, and the storing of wine became even more popular. Wealthy individuals began building private wine cellars equipped with chandeliers and elaborate wine racks for maturing their wine collections. With the advance of new technologies and materials in the 19th and 20th centuries, wine cellars became more finely tuned. Advances in refrigeration and temperature control allowed people to regulate their wine on a more sophisticated level.

Components of a Modern Wine Cellar

Components of a Modern Wine Cellar

Wine cellars today are important to both serious consumers of wine and the wine industry. A functioning wine cellar can be large or small, depending on the available space and budget. Most modern wine cellars feature the following components in their design.

Temperature Control

One essential feature of a wine cellar is the ability of the space to maintain a regular temperature of around 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees Celsius). Many wine cellars feature advanced technology that allows the owner to regulate the temperature at a high level to ensure that the wine ages properly.

There are two main methods for temperature control in wine cellars: active and passive. Active temperature regulation is maintained by a mechanical system that heats or cools the air. A thermostat or other device will turn the system on or off as needed.

A passive temperature control system relies on natural measures to maintain the temperature of the wine cellar. These natural measures include the natural cooling properties of the earth, thick walls for insulation, and natural air circulation.

Active methods for temperature regulation are more expensive but allow for easier maintenance. The method you choose depends on your geographic location, the location of the wine cellar, your budget, and your preferences as a wine collector and consumer.

Humidity Controls

Humidity control allows for the regulation of moisture within the wine cellar. You should maintain a humidity level of 60%-70% in a wine cellar. High humidity can cause the growth of mold as well as the disintegration of labels and glue. When the conditions are too dry, the cork can dry and shrink, leading to the loss of liquid and the degradation of the wine.

Active humidity controls include a humidifier or dehumidifier, depending on your area, and vapor barriers that you can install to absorb excess moisture. Passive humidity controls are natural means such as clay and terracotta to absorb moisture as well, as ventilation shafts to help bring in air circulation.


Wine is best stored in a dark environment. Exposure to UV rays affects riboflavin and the pantothenic acid in wine, which can produce sulfur and cause an unpleasant taste. The lighting sources in a wine cellar must limit the exposure to UV light to maintain the best quality wine.

Sunlight is the worst option for wine cellars as it is an ample source of UV radiation and heat. Fluorescent, halogen, and incandescent lights both produce small amounts of UV radiation.

Most experts recommend LEDs lights. LED lights, or light-emitting diodes, are energy efficient, long-lasting, cool to the touch, dimmable, and have different color temperatures.


Racks and shelving are both a practical necessity and add another chance for customization. Wine experts recommend that you store corked bottles of wine horizontally. This helps to maintain their longevity as the moisture in the bottle helps to keep the cork in good condition. A moist cork remains intact, while a dried-out cork can cause leakage and premature aging of the wine.

There are a variety of types of racks and shelving depending on the look you want to achieve. Choose from among wooden racks, metal racks, wall-mounted options, diamond-shaped, hanging racks, and stackable racks. The most expensive option for wine racks and shelves are custom options that are built specifically for your space and layout.


Wine collecting is an expensive hobby, and as some wines age, they increase in value. It is a good idea to have some security measures in place in most wine cellars. Low-key security measures are good quality locks on wine cellar doors. Many of these locks have a keyless entry, which is a convenient option for everyday use. Other more extensive security measures are alarm systems and surveillance cameras. These are good options if you have an expensive wine collection.

Other factors that might be detrimental to your wine collection are fire and temperature systems gone awry. It is a good idea to have sensors that monitor your collection and alert you if there is anything amiss.

Types of Wine Cellars

The History and Development of the Wine Cellar

Modern wine cellars have a vast array of design styles and configurations. Design styles will vary, but the most important step in designing a functional wine cellar is considering the purpose of your cellar.

Wine Cellars for Storing and Preserving Wine

Wine cellars that are used for storing and preserving wine maintain an ideal temperature, humidity, light level, and rack configuration. This space is subject to minimal disturbance to allow the wines to rest over long periods of time. It is helpful in these dark and quiet environments to organize wine carefully according to region and family to allow you to quickly find the bottles you want with minimal disturbance.

Wine Cellars for Storing and Preparing Wine

A wine cellar for both storing and preparing wine for consumption features a service room for the short storage and decanting of wine for immediate use. This area might feature shelves for the positioning of the bottles in an upright position, corkscrews, decanters, and other service accessories. This room will still feature dim light but will have brighter light for working. This room should be located closer to the service area than the room for storing wine.

Display Wine Cellars

A display wine cellar is designed to showcase wines that are ready for drinking. Many of these cellars feature glass walls and attractive shelving. Many of these display wine cellars feature special UV-protected or tinted glass to preserve the quality of the wine. Lighting is an essential feature of display wine cellars, but soft lighting is preferred but not always necessary because these wines are consumed more quickly. Depending on the situation, security measures may be more important for display wine cellars.

Multi-Purpose Wine Cellars

For most people looking to invest in a wine cellar, a multi-purpose cellar will provide the most benefit for the space. This wine cellar allows for storing, preparing, and displaying wine in an aesthetically appealing way. The best design for a multi-purpose wine cellar will ensure a seamless design and harmonize the air conditions, lighting, room space, and materials for all three purposes.

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