What is Bottle Shock?


With the holidays coming up, and being vaccinated and eager to leave my house, I’m planning to travel for the first time since this pandemic and see family (who are also vaxxed). Dabbling in wine collecting for almost eight years now, I plan on pulling several special bottles from my cellar to share with family and celebrate. They live far enough to take a plane (less than a two-hour flight) but close enough to drive (about 5-7 hours, depending on traffic), and I’m leaning toward driving because it’s cheaper, easier to bring the wine, and I’m still a little nervous about flying with the infection rates going up again.

While discussing my plans with my uncle — who has been a major collector for decades (and inspired me to start my own cellar) — he told me to ship the wine ahead of time to him, so that it can rest for a few days. He said that the wine could suffer “bottle shock” and not taste right if I bring it with me and open it the day I arrive. He said wine always needs to rest for a few days — or weeks — after traveling a long distance. I’m not sure what to do, because shipping a case of wine costs almost the same as the plane ticket! What will affect the wine more, the flight or the drive? Thanks!

— Gus D.

wine answer pink

Hi Gus, thanks for your question.

The type of travel that most affects wine is time travel — particularly if you use a Hot Tub Time Machine. All the other versions of transport are mostly if not completely safe for almost all wine.

However, that’s not to dismiss your uncle’s concerns. There are many, many wine geeks who sincerely believe that long-distance traveling indeed affects wine. It is believed that drastic changes in pressure, altitude, and temperature dramatically affect the wine’s flavor  for a temporary period. This may be described as “bottle shock,” “travel shock,” “bottle sickness,” or similar. A few days (or weeks) of allowing the wine to rest — as your uncle recommends — is believed to “cure” this “shock” or “sickness.”

This idea of “bottle shock,” however, is supported only by anecdotal evidence — thus far, there hasn’t been any real scientific proof that travel can make a wine sick. In fact, there is at least one scientific study by a Master of Wine that busts the myth.

Now, one study does not equal law, and perhaps some day, more research will prove that travel can make a wine “sick.” Until then, I’m going with the science. For me, there are too many other explanations for a wine to taste less than stellar — travel seems like a convenient and coincidental scapegoat.

Ah, but there are two caveats! First, there IS such a thing as “bottle shock” or a “dumb phase” that can occur with wines that have just been bottled. That subject requires its own article, which we’ll cover at some point in the future. You’re picking aged wines from your cellar so the point is moot. However, because you are  choosing aged wines, you should be cognizant of how travel may affect any sediment that could have developed in those older bottles. I highly recommend that you pack the wine such that all bottles are vertical, cork up (just put them in a typical wine case), so that the sediment goes to (or stays at) the bottom of the bottle. Depending on the mode and path of travel, jostling around of the bottles may cause the sediment to mix around the wine — and that MAY cause the wine to smell and/or taste a little different. However, once you’ve reached your destination, make sure to keep the bottles upright for a few hours and the sediment should settle back to the bottom. And if you absolutely must open a bottle immediately to celebrate your arrival, consider decanting it to keep the sediment from affecting your enjoyment.

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Founder of popular wine blogs Wine Dictator and Wine Weekly and host of Inside Wine Podcast, Joe's career in the wine industry spans four decades. He is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and holds Level 2 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).

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