The myth of travel shock

It’s been, what, two or three weeks since we’ve had this discussion? Actually, the ongoing “Wine transport” thread got me thinking about this again, so I did some simple calculations to demonstrate that travel shock can’t be real. If you want to read through some previous threads, here are a few. Fun to see posters who aren’t around any more:

Let’s first stipulate that travel shock is something many believe “stunts” a wine in some way, and takes time to recover from. What that “something” is, no one seems to know, though many believe in it. I’m going to eliminate the components of stirring up sediment, and temperature changes from my arguments. If you shake up an old wine with a lot of sediment, it goes without saying that the bottle should sit for a while to let the sediment settle. And if a wine gets cooked during travel, that’s not travel shock, it’s cooked wine.

So, let’s get to it. For travel shock to exist, there has to be some chemical change taking place. A reversible chemical change (because, supposedly, the wine recovers weeks or months later). And it has to be a chemical change that can be caused by just the action of gently moving the bottle in a car, boat, or plane (please be patient, because you’ll soon see what “gentle” action needs to happen to effect a chemical change).

Let’s put some numbers behind this: typical molecular bond energies are on the order of 200-600 kJ/mole, let’s say 300 on average. That’s the energy it takes to break, say, a carbon-hydrogen bond in a molecule of ethanol. Or we can use the hydrogen bond energy, which is an order of magnitude less at about 20kJ/mole. Or we can think in terms of activation energy for a reaction, which is in the same ballpark with numbers like 100kJ/mole (a “typical” value). I realize these numbers are probably meaningless to most readers here, so let’s think about it in another way: If we wanted to impart 20kJ/mole of energy to a bottle of water by dropping it on the ground, we’d have to drop it from 75 miles up. You read that right: 75 miles. And that’s just to disrupt the weakest of interactions between molecules, the hydrogen bond. To break real covalent bonds takes another order of magnitude. Which, btw, is why skydivers whose parachutes fail to open don’t explode in a cloud of gas. They just go splat.

Here’s another example to help get a sense of scale: how fast do you have to throw a snowball at the wall to give it enough energy to melt when it hits the wall (assume the snow is just frozen at 0 degrees C)? Answer: 816 m/sec, or over 1800 miles/hour. No, you’re not reading this wrong. You need to fire that snowball at more than twice the speed of sound. And that’s just to melt the snowball, you haven’t changed the resulting liquid water to wine by altering its chemical structure - that would take a lot more energy (as shown above).

Now, think about the energy imparted to the contents of a bottle during transport: driving along a bumpy road, sailing along a gently rolling sea, even taking off and landing in a 747 - none of those are even in the same zip code as the energy needed to change any chemistry of a wine.

And we haven’t touched on the notion of “reversible chemical reactions”, which are actually not very common. Most reactions take place because the end products have total energy lower than the original reactants (some reactions are driven by entropy over energy, but they are less common). Once the reaction happens, it doesn’t just “reverse” on its own back to the original components. That takes energy. Usually more energy than was required for the forward reaction. But this doesn’t really matter in the discussion, because we’ve already seen that jostling a bottle of wine around can’t possibly cause any chemical reactions in the first place.

Though that does raise the question: is there some mystical property of “travel” that affects a wine differently from just carrying it around, or pouring it into a glass? I’m at a loss to think of what “energy” could be imparted to a bottle while riding in a container ship that’s not there when I carry the same bottle out of my cellar, or tip it over and pour out the wine. Or swirl the wine in my glass. Or take a sip and swish it around in my mouth.

If the science told us something other than that we need many orders of magnitude more energy than can possibly be supplied during “travel”, I’d be happy to leave the door open on the question of travel shock. But it doesn’t. Believing in travel shock is like believing you can broad jump across the grand canyon.

The truth is that nothing we do to a wine while carrying it, pouring it, swirling it, etc., changes its composition. Just like shaking your orange juice or salad dressing bottle doesn’t change it (except to distribute the contents more evenly), stirring your coffee, blending a smoothie, etc., etc. We don’t worry about those things because they do no harm.

So, believe in whatever mystical travel shock gremlins you like, but science tells us travel shock can’t happen.
Oh, and will the folks who advocate putting wine in a blender to “open it up” please talk to the travel shock folks who worry about jostling a bottle while driving down a bumpy road? But if you’re really worried about travel shock, make sure to drive the Royal Deluxe II to your next offline

You make a very convincing argument; however I don’t think anyone is maintaining that single impact events (such as your snowball or parachuting accident analogies) could alter the molecular bonds within a wine. I personally do believe in travel shock, though I wouldn’t argue it is necessarily down to a simple (series of) chemical reaction(s) that takes place only during transport. It may at very well just be a result of mixing the liquid up a hell of a lot (much like your salad dressing analogy) - this would be enough to require a period of settling down (the most recent thread on the topic concerned bottles that will have started to throw sediment so in that case, by your own admission, these need some time to rest).

What about the following two considerations: 1) after a period of time in the bottle is generally accepted that certain gasses settle in the head space (or, somehow, more tenuously, (in equilibrium) the liquid) - could travel shock not partly be down to these being suspended (or equilibrium being disturbed) in the liquid again? 2) what about more volatile/unstable chemical bonds than the ones you describe (resultant, perhaps, from chemical processes that are already ongoing, albeit at a very slow tempo, in the bottle) - could these not perhaps somehow be affected, within a relatively closed system (the bottle) under a small amount of pressure, catalysed by for example temperature variation and vibration which may occur during transport?

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How is travel shock any different from decanting (not talking about older wines with sediment that needs to settle)?

How about a bottle of 1990 Beaucastel that is shipped overnight.

Bottle arrives with its very fine and abundant sediment shaken and mixed into the wine to the point where it is almost undrinkable.

Stand said bottle up for 48 hours in your cellar and the sediment collects at he bottom, and the wine looks and will end up tasting like a completely different wine.

That’s travel shock to me.

This post from back in 2009 struck me as very persuasive:

The chemical equilibria of wines are quite sensitive (just look at the impact closures can have on redox potential). So to me this sounds plausible. But I imagine you read this post, Alan? What do you think?

Personally, my own observations strongly incline me to believe the phenomenon exists—and that it lasts longer than can be explained by suspended sediment.

I’m still waiting to see the first time someone picks out the “travel shocked” bottles successfully in a blind lineup against the same wine that hadn’t recently been shipped. And I’m willing to bet good money against someone who wants to try.

As it is, all I’ve ever seen is confirmation bias: “I didn’t like this wine as much as I hoped. Oh, it must be because it was just shipped or because I took it on my trip with me.”

I suspect the other thing besides confirmation bias is that it’s about wines being too young. You get your new release shipment from the winery, and they’re very young and will improve if you wait even a few months. Sampling the too-soon bottle gets misunderstood as travel shock.

Anyway, we’ve argued this to death many times. For those who want to observe it, it’s your choice and doesn’t hurt anyone else.

I just hope others who read this please realize they can take their wines with them on their travels and enjoy them just fine - I’ve traveled with hundreds of bottles and they were all unaffected (except if you have an old wine with sediment that needs to settle down). Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of enjoying your cellar on your travels.

Hi Chris
The experiment has been done, using a wonderful home-made contraption (post including video of it)

I can’t recall the result, but it’s in the above post


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Thanks for the link to the experiment Ian. Perhaps the result isn’t actually as odd as it looks, given the way the experiment was carried out (though I have done similar things with drastically different results). It may of course be down to the choice of wines; however, I think it’s more likely because travel shock is probably a result of more than just one single factor. Perhaps it’s a combination of relatively rapid temperature changes, elevation changes, and vibration, or similar? This would explain why it doesn’t occur every time, though it indubitably does once in a while.

With regards to the other aspects of the experiment, I don’t think anyone would suggest that freezing a bottle and drinking it as soon as it thaws would have a huge impact on the wine. Nor would these temperatures necessarily have a huge affect on such a young wine. However, I bet that if the bottles were left for a decade after the treatment, before the tasting, the results may have been rather different (though not for the travel shocked bottles).

Could travel affect colloidal suspension in a reversible way?

I guess you don’t have to read the original post…

Did you really throw out theoretical calculations in kJ/mol? I haven’t seen that much pseudoscientific garbage since I taught high school chemistry 20y ago. Thoroughly entertaining. :slight_smile:

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I did read it - and realize he was leaving that scenario out of his argument.

I guess what I’m saying is that the above scenario is what I believe travel shock to be…the comment “For travel shock to exist, there has to be some chemical change taking place.” I don’t believe to be accurate.

He doesn’t need to leave the sediment argument out, as that is what travel shock is…young wines without sediment you can open in CA and drink a bottle with friends, check one in luggage, have the same bottle when you land and they will taste the exact same.

Having studied Chemistry I also can’t explain travel shock, but having had wine shipped to Denmark from USA by plane for at least the past ten years really have caused me to believe in the phenomenon. I have had countless bottles of rather dull Carlisle’s when opened upon arrival, that have tasted magnificent months, half years and whole years later.

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Very possible opening those exact same bottles would produce the same results had they not traveled anywhere.

A wine today and a wine two years from today are going to taste different - even when all other conditions (storage, travel, etc.) remain the same.

  1. The absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.

  2. Easy experiment. Select a bottle that’s been resting in your cellar. Contact winery to buy a back vintage of that bottle. Have it shipped (cross country ground is best). Blind taste. Make sure you’re study is sufficiently powered. N of 1 simply isn’t going to cut it. You’ll also want to repeat with different varietals, as anecdotal evidence suggests some wines are more prone to travel shock than others.

Alan - there are a lot of things we don’t understand.

So there.

Besides, even things that aren’t real are real if you believe them.

And for those who didn’t read the OP, he did mention stirring up sediment.

Traditionally when we talked about travel shock, we were talking about wine that was shipped across the ocean. I remember buying 100 cs of Chorey les Beaune from Tollot Beaut a year for about five years. This would have been vintages 69 through 73. The first time wine was shipped, I opened a
bottle when upon arrival. I thought I was going to lose my job. There was no there there. Six weeks later, one of the owners popped a bottle and pronounced it genius.

Of course, there were also wines said not to travel well. That’s another story.

Just to be clear: I’m mostly thinking of the numerous bottles opened 1-3 months after reception, that shoved distinctly different and much more open than the same wine opened impatiently just after receiving it.

wasn’t at least part of this because of non-refrigerated shipping? I remember reading about Kermit Lynch and how he started shipping wine in refrigerated containers because he realized that the wines that he had in France tasted so much better than the same wines here and at least part of that was possible damage during shipping.

A better experiment would be to buy a number of screwcapped wines. Drive half of them around for a day while keeping the others at home at the same temperature. When you return, get someone to serve bottles to you blind immediately on return, and after a few weeks. Write notes, give scores, and compare. Some detail still needs to be worked out and specified for the test, but at least this way you are as certain as you could be that the all the wines were the same before the travelling.