Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Give that new bottle a bit of time on its own

Saw the term "bottle shock" used in a newsletter I received last week from one of my favorite wineries. It had to do with wine that was tasted in March and ordered; the wine had been bottled and was ready to pick up. But purchasers were warned to wait one to three months before diving in.

So in the midst of a conversation with Anthony Vietri of
Va La Vineyards, last week, I steered him toward that subject. Probably more suited for a podcast, I’ll just roll out his response in a straight out quote and let you read it:

“It’s essentially something that happens in the process of moving the wines several times before you get to the bottle,” he began. “You’ve got this wine that has for one, two, or three years essentially lived a very quiet life in the cellar ever since fermentation. Every now and then you roused it . . . moved it to another tank or barrel, and that’s called racking. And then it . . . went to sleep again, depending on the winemaker, for two months, maybe a year, and nobody bothered with it. Occasionally somebody poked their head in there and topped up, or they added SO2 to keep it from oxidizing, but essentially the wine itself is not being moved very often. And then before bottling and in the preparations for bottling, there is a whole bunch of movement and, in some cases, the wine moves more during that week before bottling than it had since it was fermented. And in doing that it takes in copious amounts of oxygen or copious amount of nitrogen or CO2 depending on how you are gassing it.

“You’re adding SO2 to protect it from oxidizing. You might be adding touch-up acidity because perhaps the acid level has risen to a point where you feel that the PH is too high and you feel that perhaps you need to bring it down a little to keep it stable, and maybe you’ve added different things to cold stabilize it. All of these things tend to stupefy the wine for a short period of time.

“And let’s say you didn’t even do that.. let’s say you are an old-timer and -- I learned this way myself -- and you took it out of the barrel through a . . .siphon and into a bottle. Just that movement of going from that inert state, which is a state without oxygen, to filling the bottle, that simple little movement is a huge movement that we make on that small amount of wine that is in that bottle that suddenly now has been all completely moved and exposed to oxygen. It’s not a detriment to the wine because we’re careful as winemakers to not make it detrimental. But shock is a very good term. It basically stupefies the wine so what it will do is deaden the aromas and the flavors and so what happens is, you’re getting a much more subdued version than you’re going to get once the wine stabilizes in the bottle and goes back to its stasis and that has to do with the barometric pressure in the bottle and outside, and that has has to do with the SO2 that is in the wine stabilizing. It has to do with whether or not it’s been filtered or unfiltered. A lot of different elements go into that.

“That’s why though you can’t say that Bob’s wine will be ready in one month, my wine will be ready in 2 months, her wine will be ready in three months. There are so many factors involved that you can have a guess as to how long bottle shock will last, but no way of knowing for sure. So a simple way of saying it is, if you warn people [to wait] one to three months [before opening their wine that has just been bottled], that’s usually a good little window. Sometimes it’s less and sometimes it’s more, but normally 90 percent of the time the wine will fall within that window.”

Keep it in a quiet, dark spot, away from the direct sun. Preferably on its side, allowing the cork to remain wet. “There are a lot of studies going on right now about the amount of oxygen literally passing through the cork during resting,” he added, “even when it’s on its side by the way. What we’re finding is that there is definitely breathing going on; the wine definitely is breathing the atmosphere around it, so the atmosphere in your cellar is actually part of what is going in to your finished wine. . . . I just read a study talking about this, I believe it’s from Australia or New Zealand."

He stopped for a second, then added, "It’s really an amazing beverage in just every way. So the idea is that if you get a brand new wine it’s best, if they say if it’s just been bottled, to put it aside for a little bit. Find out when they bottled it and just subtract from there. If you wait three months, you’re probably fine. But the bigger the wine the more it needs to wait, generally speaking. So if you have a light picnic white, it probably doesn’t need to wait as long as a Cab from Napa.”

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