A Shock to the System

Donald Dibbern

Wine lovers, advocates, enthusiasts, spectators and aficionados, let's get right to the controversy: Travel shock, believe it or not?

A quick perusal of online wine forums and blogs reveals quite a diversity of strong opinions on a topic that initially seemed to me should be relatively straightforward. After all, wine is an expensive commodity often transported great distances between the location of its production and its ultimate delivery to consumers around the world.

I would have thought that information about, say, how long to wait before opening a bottle would be relatively standardized and easy to find. Or, perhaps, guidelines based on a few more details, such as type of wine, distance and method of shipping, might be readily available somewhere. In fact, despite a detailed review of my wine library as well as the Web, I was unable to find anything official or definitive.

Although I am not a professional in the business of wine and do not read trade industry journals or literature, if tests and trials have answered this question with any certainty, this important information does not seem to have been well publicized.

In Jancis Robinson's exhaustive tome, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006), I could find nothing directly discussing effects of travel shock, though there was an entry on transport of wine which mentioned risks of damage due to exposures to extremes of temperature and light.

Most of us have had the experience of tasting a "cooked" wine damaged by excessive heat in transport or storage, but this is not what I properly consider travel shock. It is a sense of muted flavors (especially the fruit component), accompanied by a somewhat disjointed or hollow overall mouthfeel, for lack of a better expression, often with the alcohol a bit spirity and prominent, as well as tannins seeming a bit scratchier. The presumption is that this has something to do with prolonged vibration during transport in a plane or ship or truck over many hours and days.

As a naturally skeptical sort, at first I thought little of the possibility of travel shock, other than as yet another wine myth or urban legend. Certainly I would let any sediment settle for a couple of days before opening recently received red wines, but that was about it. For the scientifically inclined among my readers, the following is strictly anecdotal evidence, but I have since changed my mind.

The first time that I noticed a difference personally, it involved a wine that I know quite well. I have consumed many Turley Zinfandels over many years and have become extremely familiar with their wines, and have been able to identify them blind at tasting events. One evening, when selecting a wine for dinner, I happened to open a particular Turley Zin that had arrived by ground transport from California to Oregon several days earlier. Since sediment should well have already settled, I opened it without hesitation. I was surprised to find that it tasted distinctly "different" than expected. Not flawed, certainly, but angular and muted, as I mentioned above.

Other bottles from the same shipment consumed months later all tasted "correct." At first, I simply ascribed this to bottle variation, until I noted similar experiences later with other wines, as I began to pay more attention to how long I waited before opening wines that had been delivered.

The card included with shipments of Williams Selyem recommends waiting eight weeks after travel, and indeed I have noted characteristic effects with these and other Pinot Noirs. To my palate, the effect seems less noticeable in white wines, perhaps because of the lack of tannin, but there may still be some effects on the flavor. I also suspect that high-quality fine wines, which are now usually unfined and unfiltered, may be more susceptible to travel shock than mass-market branded types of wine that are more likely to have been stabilized in a number of ways.

How could this phenomenon be explained? Well, keeping in mind that I am not a wine scientist and have no degree in enology, wine is one of the most chemically complex of foods or beverages. It has aspects of both solutions and colloids. In other words, some of the substances are dispersed homogeneously and others heterogeneously. (Wow, and I thought that organic chemistry would never come in handy!)

What does this mean in non-scientific gibberish? Well, let's use food items to explain. Simple syrup is a solution of sugar dissolved in water. Shake it all you want and it will still taste the same. Vinaigrette is a colloid (emulsion) of vinegar suspended in oil. You can imagine that this will taste different if shaken vigorously just before use than it will if left to settle quietly before sampling.

Obviously this is an oversimplification, but does something similar in wine account for travel shock? Note too that temperature changes in sols (colloids of solid in liquid), less extreme than those that might cook the wine, may have complex and potentially reversible effects as well. Could the average particle size of the dispersed phase affect the taste and texture of a wine? Who knows, but it sure seems plausible, as there are certainly lots of pigments, tannins, and other phenolics, as well as pectins and other polysaccharides, suspended in wine and susceptible to a good shaking on the bed of a delivery truck.

This could also explain the relatively lesser effects on fined and filtered wine (which reduces or removes many of these substances) and greater effects in red wine (which has more pigment, tannin, and phenolics than whites).

There are a couple of other related issues that merit brief discussion here as well. In her book, Wine Course: A Guide to the World of Wine (Abbeville Press, 2003), Jancis Robinson discusses the commonly noted experience of enjoying a local wine during a delightful vacation and deciding to bring a few bottles of the same back home.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, when the identical wine is tasted after an exhausting day at work or whil opening the bills in the mail, it doesn't taste the same. Of course, this is not the travel shock of the wine, rather your shock of returning from travel!

Bottle shock is another distinctly different creature than travel shock. Also sometimes called bottle sickness, it refers to temporary changes in the taste of wine associated with the process of bottling. Historically, of course, wines were bottled by hand before the advent of mechanized bottling lines. When these were first developed, the process was designed to fill as many bottles as quickly as possible, which involved in a lot of vigorous pumping, spraying, and splashing. This aeration resulted in a transient oxidized taste, until the oxygen introduced during bottling was absorbed and reached stability in its reactions with the components of the wine.

More recently, however, this equipment has evolved to handle the juice more gently and to protect against oxidation by the use of inert gases during bottling. Many winemakers, too, add another dose of sulfur dioxide just before bottling to stabilize the wine and counteract any oxidation at this final stage.

Thus, bottle shock is now more likely to involve reduction than oxidization. Occasionally this is obvious as a sulfurous "burnt match" smell, especially in lighter wines and when higher levels of sulfur are used (such as German Rieslings, in particular). Lower levels simply appear to mute or mask the fruit; decanting and vigorous aeration can be somewhat helpful if this occurs. In any case, this transient condition usually only lasts several weeks, at least for reasonable levels of sulfur. Many producers therefore choose to hold their wine in bottle for a few months before release and distribution.

So, what do I do after receiving a shipment of wine? I try to wait no less than four to six weeks for all wines, if possible. For especially fine or expensive wines, I usually wait a minimum of three months. My guess is that red wines need longer than whites to settle down, which is usually not a problem since I typically cellar most reds at least a few years before opening.

I am not, however, convinced that lighter and more delicate reds are more susceptible to travel shock than robust and heartier ones, as possibly the higher colloidal content in the latter may actually accentuate this effect. The durations listed here apply primarily to young wines.

I have far less personal experience with older wines after shipping, as I rarely purchase past vintages, instead cellaring almost all of my wines from release. I would imagine that the expected increase in sediment, however, might extend the time necessary to recover for those wines. These times also refer to commercial shipping, not gently hand-carried bottles on a plane or relatively short-distance trips in a car. I can't exclude the latter as causing some change, but in my experience those effects are much less obvious and presumably resolve rather quicker (within a few days or weeks, not months).

I hope you find this to be a helpful guide, and welcome any comments or further information others may have on this topic.

© copyright 2007 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

To contact Donald A. Dibbern Jr., write him at re.wine@verizon.net

Back to the Dibbern on Wine index page