Traumas That Lead To Bottle Shock

If you have ever traveled far afield and crossed several time zones, you know how it feels to be jetlagged. Your body clock is out of sorts. Simple tasks seem to take longer or you make simple errors that you normally don’t. When wines travel they can sometimes experience the same phenomenon. But for wine it is not jetlag, it’s called “bottle shock.”

Bottle shock is a condition that can happen to wine when they travel long distances. I have firsthand experience of this where the wine a friend or I bring to a dinner after just arriving from a flight is distinctly different from how it tasted before. It’s not normal. The aromas and flavors seem faded or disjointed. Most commonly the fruit aromatics are dull or even missing. It seems as if the wine is one-dimensional. It is “dumb.”

The best reason that I have read for this happening is quite interesting. Like Champagne bottles undergoing riddling in a gyropalette, during transport wine may be jostled, shaken and knocked around. This violent and repeated action combined with temperature changes can actually cause molecular bonds to breakdown. It may not be as severe as a centrifuge, but you can see how the motion in a ship or airplane can have that effect on a bottle of wine over a period of many hours or even days. Compounds within the wine, especially aromatic ones, could lose their integrity and degrade. This results in a wine that is lacking and deficient.

Interestingly, just as with human beings, older wines are much more easily affected by harsh and lengthy travel. They need softer handling and care. I also have found that red wines suffer more frequently from this than whites. In fact, I cannot ever remember experiencing bottle shock with any Champagnes or sparkling wines. Perhaps the additional carbon dioxide in the liquid acts as a preventative. Furthermore, I find that wines such as Pinot Noir or red Burgundy as well as Syrah seem to be more affected than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Bottle shock also can happen immediately after a wine is bottled. This is actually the origin for the term itself. You may hear a winemaker talk about his/her dislike of tasting a wine shortly after the wine has been put into bottle for fear of the wine not showing its best. Bottling can be a very traumatizing experience for a wine. You must remember that some wines also are filtered just before being bottled, and then the wine goes from a larger tank or barrel into its tiny home in a bottle. Most bottling is done by pumping, which is not so gentle. Then the bottle sometimes goes down a conveyor belt to be corked, labeled and capsuled. I’m reminded of the sitcom Laverne and Shirley, as the bottles make their way through the process, minus the glove. The noise is very loud and, as you can imagine, jarring not only to the senses, but also to the wine.

Thankfully, bottle shock, like the common cold, can be remedied – but only by time. It takes time for those chemical bonds to be rebuilt, harmonize and become whole again. The recovery time depends on the age of the wine. Young wines can taste fine after just a few days of reaching their destination. For anything 10 years and older, I would recommend a good six weeks. That isn’t always ideal, but if you want what’s best for the wine, you’ll just have to wait – or be prepared to be shocked.

Recommendations: 2011 Whispering Angel Rose ($19) I think it is going to be a warm summer, and what better way to cool down than to have a dry Provencal Rose? This one is so smooth and elegant, with notes of cream and citrus, petals and herbs. If you drink enough, you may hear the angels. 2009 Brewer Clifton Chardonnay “Seasmoke Vineyard” ($55) Wow is the first thing I thought when I tasted this. It rocks with gorgeously ripe fruit. It has a delicious intensity of flavor: orchard fruit, some mineral and just a lace of vanilla. This might be the best example of this vineyard from BC I’ve ever tasted.

Roberto Viernes is a Honolulu master sommelier. Twitter @Pinotpusher