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Heat & Wine: A Bad Pairing
By Tina Caputo
Jun 10, 2008
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Here in Northern California, we suffered through unseasonably hot--as in triple-digit--temperatures for nearly a week in May.  Since it's rarely that warm in this part of the world, many houses are not equipped with air conditioning, and few have basements.  This normally isn't a problem for wine storage, but on those rare 100-plus-degree days, it can spell doom for innocent wines.

During the recent heat spell, I received a wine club shipment.  My local delivery guy--almost always annoyingly law-abiding in his refusal to leave wine on my front porch if I'm not there to sign for it--decided that a 103-degree day would be a fine time to make an exception and leave the package there in the blazing hot sun.  There the box sat for many hours before I returned home to discover it with a beam of sunlight shining down upon it like a spotlight.

When I brought the box inside, I discovered that I had bigger problems: The temperature inside my 1920s pre-air-conditioning house had to be in the mid-90s.  I inspected the bottles in my wine rack--situated in my dining room--and found that a few had bled up through their corks and dripped onto the floor.  Not a good sign. 

When wine is subjected to high temperatures and begins to seep out of the bottle like that, it can develop a 'cooked' flavor, and will start declining rapidly.  What's a wine-lover to do? Pop the cork and get ready for some emergency drinking: If the wine tastes like stewed fruit, dump it down the sink (it wouldn't be harmful to drink it, but it wouldn't be much fun, either); if the wine tastes good, pour yourself a glass and enjoy it while you can.

One of my bleeding bottles was a 1998 Domaines Schlumberger Cuvee Anne Gewurztraminer that I'd been saving since a visit to Alsace about a decade ago.  At first I was a little bummed that I was being forced to chill and open this special wine on a random weeknight, but then I had to ask myself: What occasion was I waiting for?  An alien landing in my back yard?  When I opened the bottle the following night, I was delighted to find that the wine was not heat-damaged.  The bad news was that it was corked.  Doh!

These sorts of episodes can certainly be disappointing, but they remind us that wine is an evolving, living thing--capable of great leaps forward in quality as well as unexpected declines. 

Respected wine educator and writer Karen MacNeil presents a great explanation of the effects of heat on wine in her book, The Wine Bible.  According to researchers at the University of California at Davis (the Harvard of winemaking and viticulture schools), the rate of chemical reactions in wine can double with each 18°F increase in temperature.  This means that a wine stored at 75°F can change twice as fast as one stored at 57°F--and not in a good way.  Rather than a slow maturation, heat-stressed wine is subjected to a sharp and awkward jolt forward in the aging process, followed by a rapid deterioration.  On the up side, another UC Davis professor told MacNeil that the average wine can be subjected to temperatures of up to 120°F for a few hours and escape unharmed.  So as long as you get that bottle out of the sweltering trunk of your car within a couple hours of leaving the store, it should be just fine.

To protect your wine from heat-induced harm, always store it in a cool, dark place--like a basement or closet, or in a temperature-controlled wine refrigerator.  Otherwise, prepare to pop some corks and cross your fingers when things heat up. 

Following are reviews of some blissfully unscathed wines that I tasted this month:

Domaine De Nizas, Coteaux Du Languedoc (Languedoc, France) Rosé 2007 ($16, Clos du Val Wine Co.):  A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, this pink wine has a beautiful pale watermelon color.  It has watermelon and strawberry aromas, but despite its pretty exterior, the wine is full flavored.  It was aged on the lees (the spent yeast that settles to the bottom of the tank or barrel after primary fermentation), giving the wine a full, round mouthfeel, but the wine finishes crisp and dry.  86
Domaine De Nizas, Vin de Pays D'oc (Languedoc, France) 'Le Mas' 2005 ($13, Clos du Val Wine Co.):  Review Copy:  The wine has slightly earthy aromas, with hints of cherries and pencil shavings.  It's light in body, with black cherry fruit and bright acidity.  Simple and tasty, the wine finishes with a slight tannic kick.  A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 25% Syrah, the Le Mas pairs nicely with mild Italian sausage.  86

Marimar Torres, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 'Dobles Lías' 2005 ($45):  Marimar Torres makes two different versions of is Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay:  A filtered wine, and the unfiltered 'Dobles Lías.'  The name means 'double lees' in Spanish, and as the moniker implies, the wine spends extra time in contact with the spent yeast that settles at the bottom of the barrel.  The wine is much more delicious than that sounds:  It has lovely aromas of lemon custard and vanilla, with a nice lemony crispness, with a touch of pineapple fruit.  Yum.  89

Marimar Torres, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 'Dobles Lías' 2006 ($35):  Lighter in color than the '05 'Dobles Lías,' the filtered version of the Marimar Torres Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay actually tastes a bit richer than its extended-lees-contact cousin.  It has toasty oak and vanilla accents, and a slightly buttery character.  The wine has a round mouthfeel, with a crisp finish.  88

Bonny Doon, California 'Le Cigare Volant' 2004 ($30):  With a pretty garnet color, this blend of Grenache, Syrah, Carignane and Cinsault has aromas of black fruit, with an underlying tone of vanilla-kissed raspberry.  The wine has yummy bright fruit flavors and a silky texture, and finishes with a bit of peppery spice.  86

Clos Du Bois, North Coast (California) Merlot 2004 ($18):  This light- to medium-bodied Merlot has aromas of ripe raspberries and black cherries.  It has ripe red-fruit flavors, soft tannins and a velvety texture that make the wine easy to enjoy.  Well balanced, with a long finish.  87