“What’s wrong with my wine?”
In Florida, high temperature is the biggest cause of bad wine, or “cooking,” which means leaving your wine in a hot car while you shop at the mall for three hours, or storing wine above your fridge to be bathed in hot air everyday, or just keeping wine bottles on a rack in your living room for three or more summers in North Central Florida. All of these circumstances can cook your wine to varying degrees, but the most common occurs in transit, where a pallet is kept on a hot Jacksonville dock too long, or travelled in a truck or on a boat that wasn’t temperature-controlled. There are levels of intensity to cooked wine, from slightly heat-affected wines to hot car-nuked wines. Sitting in the car for an hour or two is a fine way to nuke your wine, causing a secondary fermentation, which releases carbon dioxide, pushing out the cork and causing leakage and leaving you with slightly bubbly vinegar. That vinegar smell is often the only hint on the nose that a wine may be faulty through heat effect, or cooked, since most bottles are not hot to the touch.
Cooked wine has more of a color shift than corked wine, mimicking the color shift from regular aging, so the whites get darker and amber colored while the reds get lighter and rusty colored. Cooking is most noticeable on the palate with that tired vinegar or madeirized character. An adjective stemming from a Spanish fortified wine, Madeira, which uses heat to create its tawny goodness. With Madeira that heat effect is intentional, and the added brandy keeps that wine ready to drink. Heating wine prematurely ages the wine, so it looks and tastes older or like wine that has already oxidized into vinegar (the natural process of wine, to eventually become vinegar). The smell of a cooked wine is subtler than that of a corked wine, and most often one has to taste the wine to know for certain. Instead of moldy wet cardboard, as in corked wines, the smell of a cooked wine tends to this sherry, or Madeira or vinegar smell, though many uncooked wines can have that smell, especially if they are just a little heat-affected.
Wine that is improperly stored for a few years can be a heat-affected, or prematurely aged, wine without being nuked to bubbles. These wines are just not at the prime they should be for their varietal combination and aging potential. In Gainesville, Florida, I tell people that if a wine has been in their house at room temperature for more than two summers, then they need to drink that wine or invest in some long-term storage system like a wine fridge or renting a space at your local ABC Fine Wines and Spirits with a wine vault (about $18 per month). Long-term storage in a regular refrigerator is not ideal since they are too cool and tend to dry out the corks (potentially letting in oxygen to prematurely age the wine), but here long-term is a year or more. That bubbly that has been waiting for a “Mimosa Brunch” for a few months will be fine.
Ideal storage temperature for wine is cellar temperature Europe or about 55º to 65º. The more consistent the temperature the better, as wine is more susceptible to damage as it rides a daily temperature roller coaster. We stored a good number of wines under our bed in wood boxes, thinking we keep that room the coolest at night, but going from 70º at night to 85º at mid-day, every day, is far worse than a consistent 75º (though 65º would be better). The wines that had weathered more than one Florida summer were the worst off (though European wines handled the heat a little better, since they tend not to use malo-lactic fermentation, as we do in the “New World”). Generally the large auction houses won’t sell a Floridian’s wine collection unless it has been stored in a certified, temperature-controlled space. I’ve had customers bring in amazing bottles of French Bordeaux that their parents bought after “The War” but then got stored in a hot water closet, or in a garage, or on a shelf in the kitchen, and now the wine is vinegar, in a neat, historical bottle. Not all wine gains in value through aging. How you age your wine is just as important as choosing which wines to age.
So remember to pick up your wine last on a shopping excursion, like ice cream. I remind people that they wouldn’t keep their baby or their dog in a hot car, and since wine is a living thing (unlike liquor) don’t leave it in a hot car either. When I take a case of wine to a car for a customer I always ask if the guest is going straight home, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t realize how easily wine becomes heat-affected. Many are shocked when I inform them of this factoid, yet they’d be the first to return a faulty wine. Years ago I had a customer bring me a burning hot to the touch wine bottle (that they’d purchased earlier in the day from me at a normal temperature) with a nearly popped cork and wine seeping out.
“ Why is this happening to my bottle?” they asked dumbfounded.
I bit back the quick answer of “physics” and took their hand and placed it on the bottle. “This is why.” They pulled their hand away, since the bottle was quite hot. They explained how they’d been at the mall for the last few hours and I shake my head and make the classic “tsk tsk” sound. “Wine expands with too much heat and now you have bubbly vinegar. Not so easy to enjoy, right?” Yes, we gave her a store credit, but I made a mental note, as she has now been educated and this should not happen again. Freezing wine is also not a good thing, but in Florida it’s all about the heat, and cooked wine, so don’t forget to keep your wine cool.
To be continued…