Monday, May 31, 2021

Oh No! My Wine is Dumb!

Recently I opened a bottle of my 2019 Syrah, excited to taste my latest vintage. I poured it into a glass and admired the beautiful dark inky red. 

2019 Keibi Syrah in bottle shock

I swirled the glass and took a whiff. 


I took a sip. 


I panicked, stuck an aerator on the bottle, and aerated the wine as I poured, something I rarely did as I preferred swirling. 


I grabbed a couple of truffle salt potato chips and started chomping. Yup, I could definitely taste that. After ruling out COVID since I am fully vaccinated after all, I came to the dreaded realization that my wine was in a dumb phase.

Dumb Phase - An Anomaly?

The dumb phase of a wine describes a period of time where the aromas and flavors are shut down, often temporarily. The science behind the dumb phase is fuzzy, and therefore, it is hard to predict when a wine may get in or (if we are lucky) out of a dumb phase. The collective winemakers' experience and anecdotal evidence provide some guidance on how to mitigate this unfortunate phenomenon. But first, let's dip our toes into the science behind wine evolution. 

Wine is an organically complex product. It contains phenolic compounds that are extracted primarily from the grapes during the fermentation process. In red wine, these compounds come from grape skins, seeds, pulps, and stems. The phenolic compounds include pigments, flavonoids, tannins, and such to give the wine its unique combination of color, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and structure. 

Wine science by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

Over time, these phenolic compounds will react with one another, causing the wine to evolve. A young wine is often vibrant in color, fruit-forward in aroma and taste, with pronounced and astringent tannins. As wine ages, the pigments known as anthocyanins bind with tannins and other compounds to form polymeric pigments. The various chemical reactions result in a wine with a more orange-brown hue, softer astringency, and finer tannins. If high-quality grapes, barrels, and winemaking practices are involved, a mature wine will likely develop in complexity with secondary and tertiary flavors.

Disruption or Development?

It is hypothesized that the dumb phase may be due to the disruption of the chemical reactions among the phenolic compounds, leaving them disjointed and shutting down the wine expression. At the same time, it could also be part of the natural development or evolution of certain wines. Let's delve more into this paradox.

1) Bottle Shock

The earliest occurrence of a dumb phase is when the wine is newly bottled. This is also known as bottle shock. The theories behind its cause are all related to the bottling process. The amount of splashing that takes place during bottling may introduce too much oxygen and may also cause the phenolic compounds to be shaken up, disrupting the natural wine maturation process. Or perhaps, a heavy hand with pre-bottling addition of sulfur dioxide as an antioxidant and stabilizer for the wine may remove too much oxygen, which is needed for wine maturation. This may cause the wine to be reticent till the sulfur dioxide dissipates over time.

Wine bottles by Thomas Thompson on Unsplash

To overcome bottle shock, many producers wait at least a year of bottle aging before releasing the wine. During the time, the winemakers may do random sampling to check on the wine.

2) Travel Shock

Similar but not identical to bottle shock, the dumb phase induced by travel shock is attributed to the wine that has recently been in transit. It is believed that a good jostling in a delivery truck, a train, a cargo ship, or even a plane plus potential temperature change during transit may destabilize the phenolic compounds causing the muted aroma and flavor.

Wine in transit by Rudy Prather on Unsplash

To avoid travel shock, wine shops often wait at least one to two weeks post-transit before putting those bottles on the shelf. Some wineries that direct ship wine to their consumers recommend a wait time of up to eight weeks before opening the bottle.

3) Metamorphosis

There is no special name for the third dumb phase so I call it the metamorphosis. This is the most unpredictable and elusive of the them all as it has nothing to do with man-made jostling of the phenolic compounds in the wine. The metamorphosis dumb phase is the muted period when a wine transforms from its youthful fruit-forward vibrance to complex elegance with secondary and tertiary flavors of leather, earth, and spices. It is like the chrysalis that was once a caterpillar before it turns into a butterfly.

Wine cellaring by Reagan M. on Unsplash

There is not a whole lot one can do with this dumb phase. It seems to happen more frequently with cellar-worthy wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Syrah. Some wine collectors expect this dumb phase to happen. They would often buy a case of the same vintage, taste them through the years, and share notes with other wine connoisseurs, hoping to catch the butterfly after the chrysalis. The other option is to invest in a Coravin so that you are able to sample the wine without opening the bottle till you get to the other side of the metamorphosis.

Back to My Dumb Wine

That takes me back to my dumb wine. Normally, I open my wine at least six months post bottling, and I had not encountered a problem previously. This particular vintage was bottled nine months ago, albeit with a pretty heavy hand of sulfur dioxide to deal with a higher level of volatile acidity. It is likely that my wine was still in a bottle shock as a result of that. 

My only recourse is to wait a couple more months and try it again, probably with a Coravin this time. Wish me luck! I hope my wine wakes up by then!