jamie goode's wine blog: Bottle variation spoils fine wine

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bottle variation spoils fine wine

One of the myriad attractions of great wines is the way that they develop over time.

Old wines can be fantastic. But they can also be appalling disappointments. Often, people put on a brave face when a 'great' wine is opened and it turns out to be mediocre, but it is more common that it should be.

The reason for these disappointments? Provenance and bottle variation, the besetting sins of fine wine.

Provenance refers to the history of an old bottle: how it has been stored. Wine is sensitive to high temperatures, and also temperature variation. Often during shipping, it exposed to both. And unless a wine is cellared well, it won't age gracefully. If you open a heat-exposed bottle just after it has been abused, you might not spot the difference. But time reveals the truth: that bottle likely won't age well after an early insult.

Wine can be heat damaged without the cork popping out, or leakage.

Bottle variation is largely the responsibility of the cork. Corks differ slightly in their oxygen transmission levels. Over five years you might not spot too much difference, but after 20, all the bottles in the same case will be slightly different. The ullage (fill level) is an indicator of this. However, there's more to the condition of wine than ullage.

It's really frustrating, and even small differences in how wines are stored or how good a seal the cork makes will be exaggerated over time. You get to the point where when people talk about a great wine, such as Palmer 61, they have to qualify their notes by whether they got to taste a good, middling or poor bottle.

And we haven't even considered the issue of authenticity...



At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Simon said...

On this topic, and speaking of 1961 Palmer, remember going to a 61 First Growth + Palmer + Ausone & Cheval Blanc horizontal at Bibendum about 15 years ago - tough work eh... Latour was supposed to be the wine of the vintage, and for a quarter of the room, it was the star wine. But for the remainder, it was a dud - badly corked. By what I'm sure is pure coincidence, three of the four bottles that night had been recorked at the chateau... Seem to remember the other bottle had come from the cellar of one Willie Lebus

At 9:13 AM, Blogger zoli said...

isn't bottle variation a reason as serious as cork taint to search for better closure alternatives?

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Glen said...

Any idea on how heat affects wine? Does it just damage the cork and allow oxygen ingress or does heat damage the wine itself?

At 2:23 PM, Blogger Claude Vaillancourt said...

Do not forget about microbiologic stability. I have tasted many wines that were very good and clean in their youth, but after a few years, were showing more and more brettanomyces aromas and accelerated drop in fruity character.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger CabFrancoPhile said...

Jamie, what's your take on the importance of acidity in aging? I read recently a few statement from Robert Parker suggesting most great Bordeaux vintages feature low acid/high pH (3.8-4.0 or higher). But I also know that high pH reduces the efficacy of SO2, thus allowing for more bottle variation in the form of Brett and oxidation. Could it be the case that with ideal provenance in a cold cellar (slowing reaction rates literally exponentially) that these less stable wines have a higher upside, if you get a good bottle? So really greatness of a given wine/vintage is based more on great individual bottles than consistency?

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Keith Prothero said...

Hope my Palmer 61 is OK on the 31st October and the Petrus 50,and Lafite 50 and the etc etc etc

Bottle variation is one of the true fascinations of wine.If every wine was predictably the same it would be boring.IMHO of course!!

At 4:53 PM, Anonymous Alex Lake said...

I wonder what research has been done on the effects of storage angle?

It is possible to incline a bottle such that part of the cork is not in contact with the wine. That means that if the bottle is warmed, air can get out (and later back in) without pushing wine out (the only possibility when storage is horizontal).

Problem is that the angle is going to be heavily fill-dependent.

At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Arthur said...


I think that O2 transmission is not as much an issue with cork. I have read that the O2 actually comes from the cells in the cork.

That aside, *most* wines are bottled after being raked off into a tank for homogenization. However, the amount of homogenization is variable on a microscopic level. With a hint of RS and one determined microbe you can get some pretty wide variation (provenance of different bottles being identical). Then, there is the issue that even filtered wines are not uniformly homogeneous. IF we assume a model of wine as a colloidal suspension, I think it is impossible to get 100% homogeneity.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Dr. Robert M. Oliva said...

Very interesting. I was wondering if the new screw tops obviate the issue? I personally have grown more receptive to the screw tops but obviously haven't had any aged wines in this capacity. What's your take on what the future may hold?


At 8:42 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Various responses.

Acidity matters: wines with higher acidity generally age better because the efficacy of any SO2 addition is increased, and because there's less likely to be brett.

Heat increases the rate of chemical reactions, and you end up with chemical reactions occuring at higher temperatures that just would never occur at lower temps.

Corks will be put under pressure by changes of temperature, and you might get microleakage or enhanced oxygen transmission.

Claude, you are right.

Alex, you really don't want air to get in and out.

Screwcaps should allow consistency, but will affect the evolution (depending on the liner this will change) - this is another issue that deserves extensive discussion.

At 12:40 AM, Blogger Glen said...

While it is certainly possible that heat would make some reactions spontaneous I am wondering if moderate heat is more likely to increase the rate of other reactions causing the wine to age more quickly. These reactions would be spontaneous but have slow rates. Do you know of any research in this area?

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Claude Vaillancourt said...


Look at this link.


At 3:42 PM, Blogger tercero wines said...


Great post - and one that I hope many have a chance to see, including the 'general public' . . .

A couple of points:

As Keith points out, this bottle variaion is part of the 'romanticism' about wine - you never really know how a wine will develop . . .

But from a CONSUMER'S point of view, bottle variation can be quite aggravating. I went out with some friends recently, and one brought a nice older bottle of California Cab. He cautiously opened it and breathed a sigh of relief that the bottle was 'ok' . . .

This is analagous to going out to your car, turning the key . . . and being 'happy' that the engine actually started!

As consumers, we should expect more, IMHO . . .

On the topic of microbiological activity, this is becoming clearer and clearer. Wines bottled unfiltered and in pristine condition will show radically different, and better, than once that bottle has seen some age, and possibly been exposed to heat. Microbial activity is nearly inevitable in these wines . . . and consumers hopefully will begin to realize this. It is one of the areas that I really feel strongly about . . . and have gone 'head to head' with folks like Mr. Parker about issues such as Brett (NOT showing in bottles he's tried in CdP but blooming terribly once the wines make it to the West Coast).

In any event, carry on and I will try to pipe in later after my pumpovers and punchdowns are complete!


At 5:31 PM, Blogger Glen said...

Thanks Claude Vaillancourt but the link just takes me to a session cookie ended page at Wiley do you have a journal, volume, page citation?

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Claude Vaillancourt said...

Try this shorter one and than click on full text in pdf. If it still does not work, enter in Google "Sensory and chemical changes in Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wines" and click on the Wiley reference.


Full reference:

Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture
Volume 81 Issue 15, Pages 1561 - 1572
Published Online: 25 Oct 2001

Sensory and chemical changes in Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wines during storage in bottles at different temperatures
Hanne K Sivertsen *, Erik Figenschou, Frithjof Nicolaysen, Einar Risvik
Norwegian Food Research Institute, Oslovn 1, N-1430 Ås, Norway

At 12:19 AM, Blogger Glen said...

Thanks Claude, this link worked fine.

At 5:49 AM, Anonymous Isotope said...

This is a fantastic set of responses and I'll try to address some of these thoughtful questions. To start off, I run a winery lab in the pacific northwest. I have access to many varietals (everything you can think of except malbec, petit verdot and petit sirah) and our laboratory generates 50,000-80,000 individual pieces of data per year. We run liquid chromatography for acids and a fancy genetic analysis system for looking at spoilage bacteria and yeast.

The poster "tercero wines" is absolutely correct. The whole reason that Parker and others say that the best wines they have had have been unfiltered is that both filtering and bottling increase the amount of dissolved oxygen in a wine. Ambient O2 in the atmosphere is 8-9mg/L and in wine that would taste quite bad (I've tasted up to 6mg/L). Most wines are bottled below 2mg/L and in our facility we try to stay below 0.5mg/L. "Bottle Shock" is simply another manifestation of the fact that a wine that was filtered went to bottle with higher than optimum O2 concentrations and requires time to naturally drop, the O2 reacts with compounds in the wine. The research done on stelvin screwcaps and corks shows that the amount of oxygen decreases in the bottle in time, but much more quickly in something with a screwcap. There is a "golden" zone where a wine will have a given amount of dissolved oxygen in which it will taste perfect, isn't that why you own a decanter? Sometimes you need to increase that 0mg/L to 0.25mg/L to make it "show" well. I wouldn't hazard a guess more than each wine probably has a range in which it will be tasting at its peak. I can recall vividly having a 1997 Latour that was absolutely marvelous out of the bottle but after 30 minutes turned into oxidized trash, if I only knew then what I know now...

Filtration is necessary, and it is important to realize how many different types there are. Historically people have used diatomaceous earth filters which I've never had the joy of dealing with personally. Pad filtration is another option in which you will get some loss as the pads are lined up in a series and you can't really squeeze the pads to recover the wine trapped in the pad. Some pads can actually filter out bacteria and yeast and are perfectly adequate for small wineries. Crossflow filtration is by far the way to go. Unfortunately you need a bit of volume of wine to make this viable but it is very effective, low dissolved oxygen pickup and the filters are made of PTFE which doesn't react with anything in the wine.

"Brett" is a word thrown around sometimes mistakenly for the taste descriptor of both 4-ethylphenol and 4-ethylguiacol and both of these compounds have different characteristics. 4-EP and 4-EG smell differently to folks and some don't mind the compounds at all. For me 4-EP tastes and smells kind of like a freshly opened band-aid and 4-EG smells like concentrated cloves. I can tolerate more of the 4-EG and both of these compounds are correlated with a spoilage yeast known as dekkera bruxellensis. If you go and bottle your wine unfiltered, you run a risk of spoilage yeast and bacteria ruining your wine. D. bruxellensis is detectable easily by the Polymerase Chain Reaction method (PCR) that is used commonly in the wine industry as well as the medical and forensic fields. The PCR method used can have problems but most of the time it will tell you if you have that type of spoilage yeast before you decide to bottle. The best thing to do is play it safe though and filter, IMHO.

I see the low acid high pH post and that certainly elicits a response. The method used by most wineries to determine "acid" wouldn't score a "C" in a middle-school science fair. Titratable acidity is how much sodium hydroxide (strong base) is required to take your wine (weak acid) to pH 8.2. High pH doesn't correspond at all to how much acid is there but which acids are there. This is a far more technical discussion meant for a better venue than a forum.

As consumers, beg for filtration!

At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

I know I'm in the minority here, but I've been more disappointed than not with aged wines.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to open 8 identical bottles of wine. These were stored together in the same box at the winery and were eight years old at the time (Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). Since they were free I opened them all within a few days of each other. Half of them had leaky corks. Overall, only four of the bottles were any good, the others suffered from aging flaws (mostly oxidation). Surprisingly, of the bottles with leaky corks, two were fine and two were flawed. These results were from wine only eight years old.

Buying old vintages of wine to drink would seem to come with a big risk of disappointment.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger tercero wines said...


Great comments - and I will be in the minority with you any day!!!

I have been involved in a 'blind tasting' of 6 bottles of CA Cab from the same case - and most at the tasting did not detect that it was the same wine whatsoever . . .

What does this mean? To me, it means that the chances of 'consistency' in wines over time are decteased when bottled with corks. This is not a 'bad' thing per se - but it certainly makes it a bit more unlikely to experience the same wine in the same way over time . . .

One other point about filtration - I'm not sure that what the poster from the Pacific NW was talking about re: Dissolved Oxygen is the reason certain wines taste better at certain times. DO is simply one factor amongst many that come into play with regards to tastes/aromas. My point had more to do with unfiltered wines and provenance and changing over time . . .



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