Ah, bottle shock. Some people know it for its true definition; others imagine it’s what a bottle of red feels whenever a bottle of white is chosen instead. Whatever meaning you lean towards, one thing is certain: bottle shock isn’t a term with which many wines hope to be labeled.
In the scientific sense of the word, bottle shock, also called bottle sickness, is when wine adopts strange, disordered flavors. These strange flavors make the wine taste less fruity, make the presence of the alcohol more noticeable, and cause bottles of Cabernet to repeatedly call in sick for work.
Bottle shock is often a result of the wine bottle being – in James Bond fashion – shaken…not stirred. In a suitcase, through the mail, on an airplane, or in the trunk of the car, continuous vibrations can upset the elements of the wine, throwing the VINO into some sort of PTSD. A frequent change in temperature and variations of lighting – such as when a bottle boards a plane in Alaska and lands in Hawaii – may also play a role.
Its tendency to occur during times of vacationing lead many people to refer to bottle shock as what it truly is: travel shock.
Not all well traveled wines get bottle shock – some can sail the seven seas without the tiniest sense of unrest (or sea sickness) – but it’s possible for most wines to get it; fragile wines are particularly susceptible.
There is no true way to avoid bottle shock, other than to not allow any part of your wine cellar to accompany you on vacations. Going to great lengths to make sure your bottle of wine vibrates as little as possible may decrease the risk of it, but there are no guarantees: sometimes a bottle of wine will bust a move without you even knowing.
The bright side, however, is that bottle shock is a temporary condition: put down the antibiotics and quit giving your bottle of Riesling mouth to mouth, it will heal itself.
Whether you’ve shipped a bottle of Pinot Noir to yourself from Oregon or traveled to Napa Valley only to return with a car full of wine cases, the surest way to make sure bottle shock won’t ruin your inventory it to wait. Give your bottles a few months to get over their shock, then drink up your stock.