Here’s my latest enological dilemma: My wine refrigerator almost never contains exactly what I want to drink. But it’s not as though some bottle-laden lunatic snuck into my apartment late at night and stocked the thing with Boone’s Farm while I was sleeping. I’m the one who’s to blame. That’s because, like almost everyone I know, my approach to filling a wine fridge has been to just chuck bottles in there at random. Gifts from friends, casual purchases, samples I need to taste; wines I plan to drink soon, wines I plan to drink later; wines I love, wines I like, wines I don’t really have an opinion about one way or the other. But consider this: One bottle taking up space in there is a magnum of 1977 Graham’s vintage port. It’s a spectacular wine. I’m thrilled to own it. But it’s a magnum of port. You could intoxicate a moose with that much port. It’s not exactly what I need for a weeknight dinner.
So, for my New Year’s resolution this year, I decided to drink up the contents of my wine fridge and start over. But I’m starting over with a plan. For me, that means stocking a lot of crisp, non-oaked whites (particularly from northern Italy, because my wife loves them); leaving space for wines I need to taste for work; devoting a shelf to older wines that I’ve cellared and are ready to drink; and having a minimum of four bottles of red Burgundy at all times, lest I fall into a state of existential despair and start questioning the meaning of life. But that’s me. Other people have different likes and dislikes; different overall needs.
Even so, I’d urge anyone who’s in the same state of wine-fridge chaos to follow the same general path. To make planning a little easier, I’ve divided the world of people who regularly buy wine to drink at home into three categories (leaving out the serious collectors). They are incredibly broad groups, but even a rough sense of what your wine needs are can help you put together a wine fridge that, when you open the door and peer in, actually contains bottles you want to drink.
For the Home Cook, wine is mostly as an accompaniment to family meals, which translates to bottles you can open without worrying about the price. If you fall into this category, think about what you like to cook. If you’re obsessed with Italian cuisine, for instance, it would be smart to keep on hand two or three Chiantis, a southern Italian red or two, whites from the Alto Adige or Friuli and a few Proseccos.
For the Host, entertaining is key, whether it’s dinners for six or parties for 60. If this sounds like you, stock your fridge with a trio of “house wines”—one white, one red and one sparkling—and buy them by the case (12 bottles), since most stores offer a case discount of 10 or 15 percent. Having go-to wines on hand means less pre-event planning; also, you can refill people’s glasses without having to figure out what they were drinking.
For the Aspiring Wine Geek, novelty and variety are incredibly important: new regions, new grapes, wines that teach something rather than reinforce the familiar. People like this are usually interested in cellaring wines, too, to learn what happens to them over time. My suggestion here is to have long-aging wines (five-plus years), such as southern Italian Aglianicos or Rhône Syrahs, on the bottom two shelves of the refrigerator; shorter-term wines, such as village-level Chablis or cru Beaujolais (to keep from two to five years) in the middle; and a wide variety of wines for drinking now on the top shelves.
And one final note: No matter what kind of life you lead, leave room in your fridge for at least one bottle of Champagne. Bottles of Champagne are like umbrellas: The day you don’t have one on you is always the day that you absolutely, positively need one.
Here are three approaches for making the most of the space in your wine fridge. In each case, I’ve based the advice on the most popular under-counter size, which holds 46 bottles or so.
Wine Fridge Stocking Strategies for the Home Cook
First, figure out what types of food you cook frequently, and fill half the refrigerator with bottles that will pair well. In the rest of the space, stock impulse purchases and all-purpose wines for parties.
Low-Alcohol Wine for Healthy Dishes: 2011 Broadbent Vinho Verde ($10)
Crisp Vinho Verdes from Portugal are quite modest in alcohol (nine percent or so), making them lower in calories.
White for Asian Dishes: 2011 Milbrandt Tradition Riesling ($13)
Lightly sweet Rieslings like this one from Washington state pair well with sweet-tangy-spicy Asian flavors.
Rosé for Vegetable Dishes: 2011 Jean-Luc Colombo Cape Bleue Rosé ($12)
Often seen as summer wines, crisp rosés in fact go well year-round with light vegetarian dishes.
Red for Hearty Italian Dishes: 2011 Capezzana Monna Nera ($12)
This berry-rich Sangiovese blend would make a great partner for classic tomato-based pasta or meat dishes.
Red for American Comfort Food: 2010 Bogle Essential Red ($11)
A spicy Zinfandel blend that’s big enough for burgers, yet the bright flavors would also pair well with roast chicken.
Wine Fridge Stocking Strategies for the Host
If you plan on having three house wines (a red, a white and a sparkling), buy them by the case; that accounts for 36 bottles in the fridge. If you want more variety, as below, adjust the numbers down a bit.
Sparkling: Avinyó NV Brut Reserva Cava ($19)
Compared to Champagne, a top Spanish cava, like this citrusy bottling, can save a lot of money when it comes to big events.
Light White: 2011 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc ($15)
A party-friendly Sonoma white: It’s refreshing and grapefruity, but it lacks the sharp Sauvignon Blanc grassiness some people dislike.
Richer White: 2011 Acrobat Pinot Gris ($12)
Screwcap-sealed wines, like this pear-inflected Oregon white, are simple to open, making them so very convenient for parties.
Light Red: 2009 Boroli Madonna di Como Dolcetto d’Alba ($17)
Delicious but unfamiliar wines, like this berry-bright Dolcetto, will offer guests a chance to try something new.
Richer Red: 2011 O. Fournier Urban Uco Malbec Tempranillo ($12)
Many big reds are too tannic for casual drinking. But this bold, juicy Argentinean blend feels velvety rather than astringent.
Wine Fridge Stocking Strategies for the Aspiring Wine Geek
Plan on filling the wine refrigerator with lots of different wines, but always buy multiples of wines meant for aging. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to figure out when the perfect moment to open it might be.
Drink Now: 2011 Casale Vecchio Pecorino ($13)
Italy’s hundreds of indigenous grapes—like the rich, melony Pecorino variety—make it a heaven for would-be wine geeks.
Drink in 2014: 2011 Christian Moreau Chablis ($25)
Chalky Chablis can be a revelation for wine lovers used to ripe California whites. Moreau’s basic bottling is among the very best.
Drink in 2018: 2010 Domaine Labruyère Moulin-à-Vent ($25)
Beaujolais crus, such as this graceful Moulin-à-Vent, age very well despite their relatively modest prices.
Drink in 2020: 2010 Puydeval Rouge ($14)
This savory Languedoc red is mostly Cabernet Franc, an often-overlooked variety. While it’s good now, it will get more complex as it ages.
Drink in 2015-2025: 2007 Chateau Montus Madiran ($33)
France’s Madiran region is valued by wine insiders for its powerfully tannic, long-aging reds made from the Tannat variety.