You may have only come in contact with the term “bottle shock” in relation to that terrible yet endearing movie staring Chris Pine about the 1976 Judgement of Paris where California wine beat French wine in a blind tasting. Or maybe it was on the lips of a sommelier or friend who fancies themselves well versed in all things wine – but there’s a good chance that you, and maybe even your friend, aren’t really sure what bottle shock is, or how it even happens in the first place, and that’s ok because scientists aren’t sure either.
Here’s basically what we know:
“Bottle shock,” also sometimes called “bottle sickness,” happens most often to wine that has either been recently bottled or has undergone a long journey – perhaps across the ocean or even just across the country. The term is used to describe a wine that seems shut down and muted upon it being opened and poured; the wine just doesn’t taste like the flavors are melding together in the way they should. It isn’t corked or oxidized, it just seems flat. And while this is a huge bummer if you’ve just opened a bottle you were very excited about, the good news is that if you have another bottle or two of that same wine, there is a chance the unopened bottles can still be saved from bottle shock. All you need is time.
We aren’t really sure what chemically causes this phenomenon, but it’s been experienced enough times for us to conclude that bottle shock is a very real thing. Wine is alive inside the bottle and the tannins, phenolics and other compounds are constantly evolving, both on their own and in relation to one other. It’s believed that when wine is transported over long distances or when it’s bottled, the jostling the wine undergoes can actually cause these elements to get out of sync and therefore temporarily shut the wine down.
But don’t fear, there is a solution to overcoming bottle shock: give the bottle time to rest. Much like we often need another vacation to help us unwind from our most recent vacation, wine that’s taken a long journey, whether across the globe or simply across the United States, needs a bit of time to rest once it reaches its destination before popping the cork. The same goes for a wine that’s just been bottled. If you happen to procure a bottle fresh off the bottling line, give it a few weeks before opening and enjoying. It’s why many wineries let freshly bottled wine sit in their cellar for a few weeks before releasing the wines to the public.
And just like we’re usually more susceptible to jet lag as we age, this is true for wine too, so be especially cognizant of bottle shock if the wine you’ve just received is more than ten years old. For some reason – again with no scientific explanation – older wines tend experience bottle shock more often than younger ones.
So the next time you open a bottle of wine that seems a bit muted in its flavors, perhaps the culprit is just the wine needing to recover from its most recent journey.