On a sunny morning in November 2019, a case of 2000 Château Pétrus went where no bottle of Bordeaux had gone before: the International Space Station.
It blasted off from a launch pad in Virginia, going from 0 to 17,000 mph in under eight minutes. After the shock of the launch came the multi-stage spacecraft separation from the rocket. It took two days for the wine to reach the space station, where it was unloaded by the astronauts aboard. Two months later, in January 2021, the wine was reloaded onto a SpaceX capsule and parachuted back to Earth. It survived the relentless rumbling of reentry before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, then was hauled to Florida and flown back to France.
If there’s any wine on planet Earth that should be suffering “travel shock,” it was that case of Pétrus. But did it? And what does the wine’s splash-down condition signal for bottles we stash in trunks or overhead bins on our way back from more earth-bound vacations?
Explaining travel shock
Many in the wine world believe that travel shock exists. The idea is that a recently transported bottle should be left alone for a week or longer so it can recover from its trip and drink well when uncorked. The possibility of travel shock has long vexed wine shippers, merchants, and drinkers. Vacationers have, as such, long been advised to let their wines purchased abroad rest after the journey home.
Travel shock seems to make sense on an intuitive level. Wine lovers speak of wine as a living creature, aging and maturing, unhappy in prolonged sunlight and in need of care lest it die before its time. Why wouldn’t it suffer from jet lag?
The issue returned to the purpled lips of wine drinkers after the spacefaring Bordeaux’s long and merciless journey: If travel shock exists, the Pétrus should prove it. (As for why it was in space in the first place, it was to test the effects of microgravity on the chemical and biological properties of the wine.)
Qing-An Zhang, a professor at the School of Food Engineering and Nutrition Science of Shaanxi Normal University, in China, has studied the mechanisms by which ultrasound, or sounds that exceed human perception in their intensity, can artificially age wine.
It’s very loud in the holds of cargo capsules, and the vibrations are significant. If the frequency from a launch is anything like the acoustics he’s studied in laboratory settings, Zhang says, “it should have some definite effects on the wine quality.”
The brief length of time from ignition to orbit, however, may not have caused much change, if any, in the wine. But even if the severe forces did cause changes in the wine’s chemistry, they would probably have been imperceptible when later uncorked. Zhang says that in the next few years, his group might begin studying the problem.
Rocket shock, however, remains an unlikely test case for most drinkers. What about that wine being ferried home from vacation?
The sustained vibrations necessary to induce noticeable chemical changes in most wines need laboratory conditions, coupled with a will to destroy.
Shaking does not change flavor
Jonas Tofterup MW, who also holds a graduate degree in viticulture and enology, says plainly: “At this point I believe that travel shock is a myth, in the sense that the human palate can detect a difference.” The sustained vibrations necessary to induce noticeable chemical changes in most wines need laboratory conditions, coupled with a will to destroy. Not even rocket launches are enough to do the job — and certainly not a California road trip.
While shaking might disperse sediment through the bottle, Tofterup doesn’t think this would affect flavor. “Sediments do not generally have any flavor, but rather, give an uncomfortable sensation in the mouth.”
If there is an effect, it’s probably less about the jostling of bottles as it is about exposure to heat and light. In other words, movement doesn’t affect a wine, but carelessness will.
To the extent that travel shock is a thing, it may not be the wine that’s changed but the person drinking it. Wines enjoyed in one set of conditions, such as the heat of a Mediterranean holiday, will taste different in another.
As for that celestial Pétrus, despite the G-forces, sounds, and vibrations of launch, Tofterup is skeptical that the rocket changed it much. “I am not convinced the vibration from space traveling will have any effect on the wine that the human palate can perceive,” he says.
This March, after the wine had been allowed to rest for two months, a dozen connoisseurs held a blind tasting to find out what had happened. They said that although the Pétrus showed more floral notes, which is possibly an effect of spending a year in a zero-gravity environment, the trip hadn’t damaged it.
Conventional wisdom in wine runs as deep as the root systems of old grapevines. While people may continue to believe in travel shock, there’s no evidence that such a thing exists. That’s great news for your next trip to Napa, Piedmont, Beaujolais, or beyond. Load up, take it home, and reach for the corkscrew whenever you’d like. The wine is ready when you are.