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Travel shock: Myth or reality?

Could it really be the case that the bottle of wine you have just transported from A to B tastes different in its new location? Intrigued by anecdotal reports, Jonas Tofterup MW investigates...

Have you ever had the feeling that a bottle of wine you know really well does not taste as you expected it to after it has travelled with you? Have you ever been disappointed with wines you have brought home after a trip?

If your answer is ‘yes’, then it’s possible you dismissed your reaction and thought it was your memory of the wine that was at fault. However, there are plenty of anecdotal comments on wine forums, blogs and websites claiming that wines definitely do suffer after being transported. The term used for this is travel shock. (Note that ‘travel shock’ should not be confused with ‘bottle shock’, which is the term used to describe wine soon after bottling.)

Descriptions of the effects of travel shock include: muted flavours, a disjointed or austere palate, a hollow mouthfeel, a burning sensation of alcohol, rough and edgy tannins, as well as a general lack of harmony. Furthermore, there seems to be a consensus that wine recovers after a period of rest. However, there has been no scientific work published on whether air or road transport does genuinely affect the sensory properties of wine.

As a winemaker currently working mainly on the commercial side of the wine business, I found the concept of travel shock intriguing, given that it could potentially have a negative impact on wineries. For the final stage of the Master of Wine programme, students have to investigate an original topic within the world of wine, and since no work had yet been published on the impact of travel shock following air and road transport, I chose it as my research topic.

The research

Where to begin? I needed to find a wine that could be susceptible to travel shock and reveal some or all of the characteristics described above. That’s to say, a quality red wine, full-bodied with firm tannins.

For the experiment I also needed 48 consecutively-filled bottles of the wine that had never left the winery, thus minimising the risks of bottle variation or poor storage conditions. I was able to use a Spanish wine from Ribera del Duero: Viña Mayor Reserva 2012. The winery had a good venue for the necessary tasting and a suitable in-house laboratory for chemical analysis, thus further minimising the risk of control samples being affected by potential travel shock.

To test for travel shock the wines were divided into four sets. Set 1 was flown to Scandinavia and back two months before the analysis. Set 2 was flown to Scandinavia and back two days before the analysis, and at the same time Set 3 was transported in a local delivery truck for eight hours. Set 4 never left the winery. Each set had a data logger to monitor shocks, temperature and atmospheric pressure. The sets were transported during the autumn to avoid the wines being exposed to heat extremes, as it is already well documented that wines suffer from exposure to excessive heat.

With the three sets returned to the winery, they and the control set underwent chemical testing. In addition, a panel of 12 MWs, MW students and Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma holders carried out a range of sensory tests. These were mainly triangle tests where the panel tasted three glasses of wine blind, two of which had been subjected to the same travel conditions, while the third had been subjected to different conditions. All of the combinations of treatments were analysed in duplicate.

The results

The sensory panel tasting found no significant differences between the samples that had travelled and those that had not moved at all. Furthermore, none of the travel samples displayed any negative sensory impacts. In short, the panel found no travel shock.

However, to my surprise, the wines that had been air-freighted had significantly lower levels of free SO2 (2-3pm) than the controls and the wines that had been transported by road. They also had higher spectral absorbance at 420nm, which indicated browning. This strongly suggested that a small amount of oxygen was absorbed through the cork while it was being air-freighted.

These results contradict the popular anecdotal view that wines suffer sensorially from travel shock immediately after travelling. I could go as far as to suggest that we blame a wine for not tasting as it should after travel when in fact it is not the wine but the person who is in ‘shock’, tired after travelling, or regretting the end of the holiday. That said, this experiment needs to be repeated, as results could have been different if another style of wine had been used.

It is important to note that even though the panel of tasters did not perceive the lower level of free SO2, it could nevertheless have a cumulative effect on wines that are shipped a number of times before being opened, and could potentially provoke a state of accelerated oxidation. In other words, they might age faster than they should. This could include fine and rare wines, often sold at auctions.

My advice is that buyers should take extra care when purchasing these wines. Their storage history is known to be important, but my research shows that their travel history could also be significant. Wines are indeed best kept in the original cellar.

The copyright of this research is owned by the Institute of Masters of Wine. To read the full research paper, submit your request to: www.mastersofwine.org/rp

Jonas Tofterup MW, of Danish origin but based in Spain, is the European export manager of Valdivieso & Caballo Loco and owner of Iberian Wine Academy, a WSET school in Malaga


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