Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Heat Miser Strikes Again

Last night, I cooked an easy Tuesday dinner and uncorked a bottle of wine, thinking in the back of my mind that I might find something to write about the pleasures of simple food and simple wine, or about pairing red sauced pasta with white wine. Instead, I find myself writing about that pervasive old culprit, heat damage.

This is not a rant against the wine in question, the 2006 Falanghina “Sannio” from the large Campanian producer Feudi di San Gregorio. I’ve enjoyed this wine and others from Feudi di San Gregorio in the past. When it’s in good shape, it’s a lively, well-balanced white, brimming with peach, lime and fresh herbal flavors, backed by medium acidity, medium body and a faint hint of minerality. It’s refreshing, a versatile food wine and, at around $12-13, a pretty solid value. But this bottle was dead in the water. Though not totally undrinkable, it was all but devoid of fruit, its alcohol was much more prevalent than it should be in a wine clocking in at 13%, and that savory herbaceousness was no longer savory. Think instead of herbs that have sat unused for too long, wilting and tasting more of decomposition than of freshness, of death rather than life, and you’ll have a sense of what I found.

This is not a rant, either, against the store where I bought the bottle, against its importer, the distributor or the winery. In one way or another, they’re all responsible for the fate of this bottle. So am I, for buying it in full knowledge that it might be flawed. It would be way too idealistic and optimistic on my part to think that every spoke in the wheel of the global wine distribution system will ever take the steps necessary to prevent heat damage from happening. But until they do – and I’ll try to hold out a glimmer of hope, in spite of my natural skepticism – nearly every bottle of wine you and I buy will carry with it the distinct possibility of not being what it was meant to be.

How do I know this bottle was heat damaged? Well, part of it can be chalked up to plain old experience. As I mentioned above, I’ve had good bottles of this wine in the past. I know it’s good in its youth – it’s a wine I’d usually look to buy as young as possible – yet I also know that it has the stuffing to last for a couple of years with no problem.

This case was actually tougher to detect than some others, though, as the effects of its heat damage were subtle rather than profound. The bottle passed all of my usual point-of-purchase inspections. Its capsule spun, there were no signs of seepage or leakage and no sweet or sour aromas emanating from below the capsule. Its fill level was good and there was no schmutz on the bottle. So, obviously, I bought it. When I opened it, though, I found that all my inspections had not been enough.

Corks, in spite of their own inherent problems, can provide great evidence in sussing out questions of poor handling. Just take a look at the picture above. The bottom of the cork was perfectly moist and seemed to have kept a good seal. However, the sides of the cork told a different story. Stains, now dried out, appeared at varying heights, like the graph of a very erratic heartbeat. This is not the signature of wine that’s begun to soak up through the cork over time. Rather, it’s the sign of wine having been forced up between the cork and the neck of the bottle by the increase in pressure caused by heating of the bottle’s contents. In this case, the heat exposure wasn't extreme enough to piston the cork or to cause leakage, but it was definitely enough to bruise and dull the wine. There’s no telling when or where this might have happened. It could have been in the hold of a ship, in the back of a delivery truck, on the shelves of a warm wine shop or in a warm distributor’s warehouse, or even on the driveway at the winery, where the wine could have been left out on a sunny day waiting to be picked up.

The problem with this kind of heat damage lies in its very subtlety. As mentioned above, the wine was not totally undrinkable. It just wasn’t what it could or should have been. And I can guarantee that you, I and everyone who has ever bought more than a couple of wines in their lifetime has had many a wine like it.

For obvious reasons, many importers, distributors and retailers tend to downplay the prevalence of heat damage. Even professional wine writers and avid connoisseurs have been known to deny its effects, sometimes because they may have vested interests in protecting the agents of wine’s global supply chain but also, I think, because they may not want to admit – to themselves or others – that many of the wines they may have drunk, written about or stashed away in their cellars may have been damaged in much the same way as was this poor Falanghina.

So no, this isn’t a rant against the handlers, sellers and other enablers in the wine business. It’s also not a shill based on the fact that I work in a totally temperature controlled wine shop, from point of origin to point of sale. I buy wine for my own enjoyment from many, many outlets, as I’m not willing to limit my sphere of experience to the few sources that do what’s necessary to prevent heat damage from occurring. It’s just a call to awareness, backed up by a little pseudo-scientific detective work, that I hope will help us all to recognize some of the many signs of heat damage.

* * *

For those unfortunate enough not to grasp the “Heat Miser” reference or to recognize this posting’s lead-off image, here’s a clip from the original source, just in time for the holidays.

By the way, Mr. Snow Miser’s influence on wine is much less insidious than the Heat Miser’s, although the Ice Man will rear his head from time to time when you do this.

PPS: You can also read about a slightly different experience with heat damage as reported in one of the first experiments conducted at the Rational Denial lab. I'd like to see that lab test recreated, this time using a wine the Director already knows and enjoys.


Chief Executive Researcher said...

I was actually stopping by to tell you that I opened the CRB L'Arpent Rouge and it was EXACTLY as you described a few weeks back. I can't recall a time when a tasting note was so precisely spot on to how I experienced a wine. Especially the hard to articulate part about the mouthfeel and the not-quite-tannin rasp. Well played that.

But while I'm here... This summer, we actually froze a bottle of Reisling at the Lab on purpose:

Cold is definitely less insidious than heat.

cheers, J David

Do Bianchi said...

Great post. Should be required reading for all of us, on both sides of the counter.

Joe said...

Tragic for such a young wine to die an untimely death. Not only have I frozen a few bottles in my time, in a rant on wine serving temperatures I suggested freezing wines before serving for a quick chill - after which a friend froze a bottle of bubbly (haven't had a lawsuit yet...). Have you ever read "How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar" by Dr. Gold? In between his discussions of soil physics he tries to debunk various wine storage "truisms", including putting an old bottle of lafite in paint shaker (I'm not joking) then he compared it blind to a bottle that had not been subjected to such cruel punishment (undistinguishable to the tasting panel). Great post!

Joe Manekin said...

Very interesting post. I think you really hit the nail on the head when you stated that the differences in quality of a heat damaged wine can be subtle, but certainly noticeable to those familiar with the wine. Similar to TCA. If quality is the chief concern, not only to facilitate maximum sales but also as a point of pride, you'd think that from producer to retailer, everyone in the quality wine supply chain would take the necessary steps to ensure the proper handling conditions.

As we all find out from time to time, this is not the case, unfortunately.

As for the video, I was one of the unfortunate few who did not catch the heat miser reference. Having seen the video I am now a better informed and happier person.

David McDuff said...

J David,
Thanks for the flattering feedback on my L'Arpent Rouge notes. I'm indeed honored that you found my description so spot-on but I'm still a bit curious.... Did you like the wine?

Speaking of being honored... I'm glad you found this to be of some value.

Even though I'm happy to reiterate that heat has a much more profound impact on wine than does cold, I'd still stop short of ever recommending intentionally freezing a wine. In terms of some of the other wine storage truisms, I think it's clear that the short-term effects of light and vibration -- the other most mentioned culprits -- are far less damaging than short-term exposure to heat.

Joe M,
Good point about TCA. Like heat damage, cork taint can run the gamut from so severe that the wine is obviously wrecked to so subtle that all but the most sensitive and/or experienced tasters are likely to drink up, only to deem the wine -- which in both cases is not what it should have been -- as unlikable or poorly made.

There's a difference, though, in terms of responsibility. While the wishes of importers and the impressions of consumers may play a role in the continuing use of corks and the resulting prevalence of cork tainted wines, responsibility for cork taint is placed much more firmly on the shoulders of the producers who continue to choose cork in favor of alternative closures.

David McDuff said...

PS: Joe M,

The Heat Miser clip is from an old Rankin/Bass Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus. It doesn't get the play of Rudolph but it's a classic.

Chief Executive Researcher said...

I did like it. It's a bit like Jim Ginsler. He was a kid from my elementary school. He was a little rough and unkempt, even a bit weird, and really awkward at sports. He didn't really fit in with any of the cool cliques. But he was interesting. And funny. Over time, he grew on me.

David McDuff said...

I think "funny" is a pretty apt descriptor for L'Arpent Rouge, JD, as it made me wake up and smile. And I think we all have a friend or two like Jim. Glad you enjoyed it.

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