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Little Things Mean A Lot

A few years ago I attended a wine conference for winemakers during which many wines were tasted blind. One presentation included two wines which, on a majority opinion, were different from each other. They were actually the same wine, some of which had been couriered to the venue 2 weeks previously, with the remainder having been brought down immediately prior to the conference: this was simply a good example of what is described as "travel shock". On another occasion I sent wine to the UK by sea at a constant temperature of about 6ºC and tasted it soon after, expecting to see at least some travel shock, but found to my surprise the wine had not suffered at all.
As part of the requirements for my MSc I studied mathematical modeling of liquid crystals - not to be confused with the liquid crystals we commonly talk about today. This was concerned with how compounds align their molecules relative to each other in solution in a manner dictated by their weak charges (hydrogen bonding). Extrapolating this phenomenon to wine, I propose that phenolics do just this. The particular point of interest is that the parts of these compounds which would be involved with this "hydrogen bonding" are the same parts which contribute the sense of structure (tactility, bitterness and some acid sensations) to its taste. As I see it the bonding would be expected to impede access of the appropriate parts of these molecules to the taste receptors of the tongue so that when broken, the perception of wine structure is inevitably enhanced. Additionally, warmer temperatures increase "Brownian" motion of molecules in solution and since this is known to weaken intermolecular attractions we have the rationale for why travel shock is more noticeable when the wine is transported at warmer temperatures.
No, you won't find my explanation in any book on wine or validated in laboratory experiments, but this description does accord with what actually happens. Vibration from extended travel will change your perception of a wine - heightening impressions of structure which in turn partly masks the fruit. Transport at lower temperatures will lessen this problem, and storing a wine in a fridge for a few days before tasting at the proper temperature, will tend to hasten its recovery. Thus, if I send wines overseas for tasting or receive imports for my cellar, my rule is that they should at the least be allowed to "rest" for up to a couple of months before tasting and where possible be transported at lower temperatures.
All this brings us to the related issue, that of "bottle shock" which refers to the deterioration in flavour of a wine soon after it is bottled. We know that passage through a very fine (microbial) filter will result in similar results to that of travel induced agitation, but when we filter as part of the bottling process, the situation is even more complicated. Small amounts of air are included with the wine - possibly varying slightly from bottle to bottle - and these traces of air have been found to have measurable implications in experiments with sealed ampoules of wine, even four years later. Oxygen initiates a cascade of chain reactions which impact on the phenolics, slowly affecting the oxidation state of the contents of the bottle (redox potential) which will eventually cycle between "oxidative and reductive" at an increasingly slower rate. The effect is mirrored on the palate with the wine initially tasting quite full and attractive while "oxidative" (4-6 months after bottling) and slowly swinging back to appear quite lean and ungiving (reduced). The latter can be observed at around 18 months to two years but eventually (often around 4-6 years in a 12ºC cellar) it can look rather oxidized again - even a touch tired and aldehydic or advanced in age, before it settles down once more.
During this cellaring period, any access by oxygen through the closure will modify the longer term consequences of bottling and how our wine cellars. Temperature will also affect the rate of change induced by these "oxy radicals" and as an example, reducing the temperature from 20ºC to 10ºC will reduce the rate of reaction to about 30% (hence the significance of cellaring temperatures). Further, red wines cope better than whites by virtue of higher levels of the phenolic compounds reducing these oxy radical cascades. Overall, the maturation of wine following bottling defies detailed analysis - we can assert that filtration has a short term effect (texture/structure) on the wine, and the oxygen which is included at the bottling is significant for its perceived structure, development and 11 longevity - albeit modified by the winemaker's choice of closure - but precise long term recommendations as to when to drink seem to require the analysis of too many variables. I think I'll just stick with Andre Simone's famous saying: "there are no great wines,only great bottles".
PS: I've yet to discuss what happens with the contribution of the compounds involved with flavours as opposed to the structure of the wine - I'll save that for another time!

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