What is bottle shock?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is bottle shock, and is it true that a bottle that’s been opened immediately after lying on its side for a while suffers from this condition? Should I let my bottles stand upright for a few hours before opening them?

—Glenn L., Singapore

Dear Glenn,

“Bottle shock” or “bottle sickness” are terms used to describe a temporary condition in a wine where its flavors are muted or disjointed. There are two main scenarios when bottle shock sets in: either right after bottling, or when wines (especially fragile older wines) are shaken in travel. Usually a few days of rest is the cure. The evidence for this phenomenon is more anecdotal than scientific, but the theory is that all the complex elements in wine (phenolics, tannins and compounds) are constantly evolving, both on their own and in relation to each other. Heat or motion can add stress to this evolution, causing the wine to shut down temporarily.

Most wines are fine if you take them from a lying-down position to an upright one. It’s the older, more fragile bottles that need special handling. When a wine hits the 10-year mark or so, there’s probably a fair bit of sediment in it. Sediment is a byproduct of aging wine, as phenolic molecules combine to form tannin polymers that precipitate out of the liquid. Disturbing the sediment won’t necessarily cause the wine to go into bottle shock, but it might be unpleasant to have all that gritty sediment floating around in your wine.

What to do next is a point not always agreed upon. Many people—myself included—will stand an older bottle upright for at least a couple of days before opening it and decanting it off its sediment. Others say this will disturb the wine too much, and that the sediment will be so released into suspension it will take months to clear up. But if the wine in question is relatively new, without any sediment, you don’t have to worry about it.

—Dr. Vinny

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