Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Wine has some particular requirements in order to maintain its original structure and flavour profile, the problem being the impracticality of trying to maintain these whilst transporting wine or storing it at home. Ideally, temperatures will fluctuate no more than a few degrees during the transportation of the wine, and should be kept below 18°C whenever possible. The wine shouldn't spend any length of time exposed to light, and it goes without saying that any sort of breakages are likely to spoil your mood upon receiving your wine. As much as I love the colour red, having my entire wardrobe tie-died a lovely shade of Burgundy is not part of the plan.
Whilst several factors can potentially influence the quality and structural integrity of wine between point A and point B, temperature could perhaps be regarded as the single most important; “The difference between a wine shipped at cellar temperature and one shipped in a standard container is not subtle. One is alive, the other cooked” - Kermit Lynch, wine importer. Chemical reactions occur more rapidly at higher temperatures, some at different rates to others, and in general unfavourable reactions tend to occur at higher temperatures. This was proven by Christian Butzke of the University of California, Davis, during a study he conducted on behalf of the American Vineyard Foundation in 2001, showcasing that it sometimes only takes an increase of 4°C to double the rate of certain ageing reactions.
In laymans terms; have you ever wondered why that wine you enjoyed so much in that vineyard in Tuscany tastes so ordinary a couple of months later at home? Or why that wine you've left sitting on the kitchen counter tastes so lifeless? It could well be that the balance of the wine is completely thrown by the fluctuations in temperature during its transport, from purchase to actually being consumed weeks, months or years later. I meet a lot of guests who want to ship wine home after visiting vineyards and wine shops on holiday, and my recommendation to them is always to grab a Wine Check airplane carrier, fill it up and book it in as extra hold luggage. For starters it will cost you considerably less in the long run, and it will ensure that the temperature is regulated and minimised as much as possible by the high-density polystyrene protectors inside the Wine Check carrier. I've had wine transported from Argentina, Chile, Italy and France so far in my own Wine Check with no issues with any of the bottles. Heat damage can rob a wine of its vibrancy and freshness remarkably quickly, something I've experienced due to poor transportation conditions locally.
Another advantage that I've come to appreciate is storing wine at home. I live in Barcelona, Spain and to say that the weather is on the warmer side would be a gross understatement, often reaching in excess of 32°C with few of the buildings having air conditioning (mine definitely doesn't). It's also a densely populated city with everyone living in flats and apartments, so large refrigeration units and underground cellars are largely out of the question. Whilst nothing will replace the natural conditions created in a professionally installed cellar, it has meant that I can hold onto wine throughout the summer in my apartment, without fear of it cooking and ending its life in a Bolognese sauce. I mean, I have to store my Wine Check somewhere and it takes up the same amount of room, so why not fill it with wine? Mine is currently full of Beaujolais, Loire Valley reds and various sparkling and white wines from cool climates, all perfect for summer-time drinking!
The added advantage of storing my wine in my Wine Check, aside from avoiding the aforementioned surprise cookery class, is keeping it out of sight of the way of light. The process by which wine is rendered undrinkable after being exposed to light, sometimes only after as little as one hour, is known quite dramatically as light-strike. This doesn't tend to be much of an issue during the transportation of wine as pretty much all options will cover this base, but for storing wine at home it can become a real problem.
Light-strike isn't a well-known phenomenon, so a lot of issues created by it often end up being blamed on other things, the poor, much maligned cork usually taking the brunt of the blame. However, wine exposed to light ends up being slightly tainted in the least serious of examples, through to producing aromas of damp cardboard, overcooked cabbage and sewage in the most serious. Yum. There's a reason why many bottles are made from darkly tinted glass and why Roederer's famous Cristal Champagne is clothed in a light-deflecting orange cellophane. Rosé wine tends to suffer the most due to the practice of bottling it within clear glass, which helps sell the wine, but does mean it is completely exposed to harmful rays. Those beautifully perfumed, salmon-pink wines we love to consume over the hot summer days are rarely improved by the addition of dimethyl disulphide, and you'll rarely find a chef who would combine delicate red fruits and floral flavours with cooked cabbage.
For more information on light-strike, check out this article written by the peerless Alex Hunt MW, writing for Jancis Robinson.com
This one doesn't require a great deal of explanation in truth. If you're transporting anything across any distance, it's likely to be continuously handled during its journey. In the case of wine, that lovely Champagne you picked up on your honeymoon to France will be packaged and transported, often changing hands 5 or 6 times before it ends up in your fridge. When I go on holiday I make sure to put any sort of cream, tooth-paste or liquid in a sealed plastic bag, simply because I know that the chance my bag is going to be treated like a crash-test dummy is high. In fact, on that note I will leave you with a video showing some less than delicate handling of luggage at major airports and docks around the world. Just imagine that instead of your clothes and toiletries, that's a box full of €60 Barolo, just separated by a thin layer of bubble-wrap. Yikes.
Fintan Kerr is the owner and operator of Wine Cuentista. Based in Barcelona, Wine Cuentista offers high quality private wine tastings focusing on the treasure trove that is Spanish wine, as well as organising international wine tastings on a bi-monthly basis. To learn more, or to read more ramblings and ravings about the world of wine on their regularly updated blog, go to http://winecuentista.com/