I’m away this week, squeezing in a bit of end-of-summer time with family. Below, I have reprised a Grapevine column from August 2011.
Here we are in the midst of the August doldrums. It may be great if you’re baking yourself at the beach, but for the rest of us, each day is another opportunity to bake under blistering temperatures, without any relief of a refreshing dip in an ocean, bay or lake.
As each day progresses – from the morning commuter train with the malfunctioning air conditioner, to sitting in traffic with the late-day sun penetrating our brains – we feel our bodies wilting, blood boiling and skin glistening from sweat. Thank goodness, at the end of the day we can readily find relief in a glass of cold Provenḉal rosé or a slightly chilled Spanish garnacha.
Take a step back. Consider the environmental issues that other living organisms must endure during the heat of summer – including wine. That glass of wine you are about to pour into your wine glass may have suffered a torturous journey similar to yours before it so lustily satiated your thirst.
Did it fare better than you did? Assuming that modern transportation and storage technology, coupled with the advanced science of temperature control, has dealt your wine a better fate than you have persevered through, you eagerly bring the wine to your lips, expecting instant relief from the travails of the day.
Aargh. The wine smells and tastes as if it was cooked for a prolonged period in a microwave. It has the aromas and flavors of stewed fruits or burnt caramel; it doesn’t taste of fresh grapes. What’s going on?
The proper oenological term for this phenomenon is “cooked” wine. In essence, your summertime bottle of wine was not stored and/or transported under ideal temperature controls as it traversed the land and/or ocean from winery to consumer.
Wine is a living organism and is susceptible to changes in its environment. If ambient temperatures rise or drop gradually (generally within a 10-degree range), it can adapt – just as you and I do. If temperatures rise or drop dramatically for extended periods, the molecular structure of a wine is altered. The wine may expand, increasing the air pressure inside the bottle and pushing the (natural) cork upward; this allows air into the bottle, causing oxidation. Your wine has been cooked.
Most, if not all, of the storage facilities that wine travels through on its way to your table have modern-day temperature control installations. However, one weak link in the chain will destroy wine. Refrigerated trucks, cargo ships, warehouses, retail shops and homes assure us of proper environments for wine.
But consider this: if the truck that transports wine from a French winery to an unairconditioned freight dock that is hours away on a hot summer Provenḉe day, the cases of rosé may cook. If a distributor’s warehouse loses power for an extended period, the stored Spanish garnacha wines may cook. If UPS is delivering wine to your home on a 99-degree day, and you are the last stop, your wine is at risk. (More ominous: you’re not home and the process is repeated again.)
If you’re drinking a wine for the first time, it may be difficult to discern if the wine has gone bad or is simply a bad wine. The safest course of action is to return the wine and ask your trusted wine merchant to make that determination.
Is there a way for consumers to detect cooked wine prior to opening a bottle? Unfortunately, no. My advice: find a reputable distributor or importer that protects its wines; be wary of retailers who receive large land-freight orders in the summer months; and never order wines for shipping directly to your home during beach weather.
It’s bad enough if you’re cooked; it’s worse if your wine shares the same fate.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.