When buying wine in Asia, the first question you should be asking your merchant is: How do you transport and store your wine?
Many consumers are unaware that wine is a perishable product, a ‘living thing’ that undergoes a delicate, continuous transformation of chemistry and integration of organisms. Even those who are acquainted with wine often disregard these facts, believing that it is resilient in its youth and that the glass bottle it lives in provides sufficient robust protection. In actuality, wine is almost as fragile and spoilable as any other fresh produce and it requires specialised handling in every step from production to the point of consumption.
At the core of this problem is an accommodating collusion and apathy towards shipping and storage logistics between wineries, wine exporters, importers, merchants, retailers and restaurants to make satisfactory profits and meet the bourgeoning demand for wine in the Asian market. Less expensive wine intended for early consumption, coerced by sensitive price points, are the most mistreated. Yet the reality is, all wine is extremely fragile and highly susceptible to temperature fluctuations, light and oxygen.
The transportation and storage of wine in the relentless tropical heat of South East Asia and variable temperatures and extremes of sub-tropical East-Asia, is problematic. This requires both shipping and storage facilities that are temperature-controlled. However, this is far from standard practice with many inexperienced or erroneous small-scale wine importers, and not confined to less-developed countries either, with the relatively liberal customs and liquor licensing laws in countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore compounding the issue.
The predominant problem is inadequate storage, with the heat in a non-air-conditioned warehouse irreversibly altering the wine’s chemistry and prematurely accelerating the aging process, all to its detriment. It is also feasible that excessive heat will force the cork upwards, breaking its critical seal and leading to oxidation. A sure sign of this are wine stains in a vein down the sides of the cork. Even if wine is stored in a warehouse that is temperature-controlled, there is often insufficient humidity, which dries out the cork causing it to shrink, again breaking its all-important seal. It may seem inconceivable that there would be lack of humidity anywhere in Asia.
However, air-conditioners dehydrate the air and in the same manner as wine left too long in the fridge will dry out the cork, so too will environments such as warehouses, shopping malls and supermarkets. Similarly, there are wine stores and supermarkets that turn their air-conditioning off during non-trading hours, causing significant fluctuations in temperature. Another common occurrence in supermarkets is over-exposure to high levels of ultraviolet light emitted from fluorescent bulbs. This has a degenerative effect on the organic compounds of wine causing deterioration in aroma and flavour.
All that said, there is a greater chance of wine being ‘cooked’ before it even reaches the docks, should the importer not use a refrigerated container (reefer) for the ocean freighting. Again, this is prevalent with less expensive wines. The cost of a reefer is almost three times the amount of a normal container (dry box), a deterring factor in this highly competitive sector. The temperature inside a container is affected by both radiated and conducted energy. If you consider an outside temperature of 40?C, as it can be in Australia during the summer months, the inside of a container will conceivably be 60?C. At 35?C corks will begin to move and it only takes a few hours of this heat level to afflict a wine’s chemistry, with the sustained high temperatures of a ten-day sea journey effectively quadrupling the aging process. Shipping wine in the harsh European winter is equally hazardous. At minus 5?C wine will freeze, and at zero degree certain wines will throw an unsightly tartrate crystal deposit.
Dedicated Wine Logistics Companies
Complicating matters further is the high probability that wine will be heat-affected before it even reaches the sea container, especially if temperature-controlled transport is not employed for collection from the vineyard. This is often the case in Europe where inland transport is prohibitively expensive, conceivably double the cost of the ocean-freight component. Again, inexpensive wines are the main victims. All of the issues are easily surmountable if you diligently follow the correct procedures and use the right shipping firms.
I would strongly advise all wine importers to use dedicated wine logistics companies, who will have offices in almost every wine-producing region and major city in the world and only use vehicles that are temperature-controlled for wine transport and have temperature-controlled warehouses. Such firms will be equally emphatic about the use of reefer containers, providing the quantities are sufficient (approximately 750 cases).
For smaller shipments, consolidated freight services are unavoidable, and unfortunately rarely offered in refrigerated containers, apparently a disappointing reflection of customer demand. Most consolidated freight (wine) services, utilise the latest in insulation liners made of energy-reflecting material that turns a dry container into a food-grade container. Coupled with below-deck storage, this substantially reduces sharp temperature fluctuations, and whilst not as ideal as a reefer, is the most cost-effective and practical option.
Air-freight Wine – Infallible?
Of equal concern is the assumption that air-freighting wine, normally associated with super-premium or collectable and mature wines, is infallible. This includes the illusion that the polystyrene packing sufficiently protects the wine. Central to the problem is the fact that most of the conventional airfreight companies that amateurs use, such as DHL, FedEx, UPS, etc, have no idea how to treat wine, and within their cumbersome logistics, unintentionally mistreat wine, and that includes both in the air and on the ground.
Freight forwarders rarely take any measures to compensate for the fact the aircraft cargo hold has no resemblance to the pressurised and temperature-controlled environment for passengers. There have been several investigations surrounding these issues, the most conclusive coming from the USA Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who uncovered ‘temperature ranges in the cargo hold from minus 17?C to 40?C reported in a single flight.’ However, these analyses do not give the full picture of the searing temperatures of airport tarmacs and the invariable delays with temperatures in the cargo hold soaring to boiling point.
The extremes of in-flight temperature are compounded on the ground with near freezing wine rapidly rising in temperature and exposed to perilous conditions when unloaded then placed in non-temperature-controlled warehouses awaiting customs clearance, which sometimes can be days, even weeks. If these detrimental conditions were not enough, it degenerates further in the final delivery which is rarely executed by temperature-controlled vehicles and can be delayed or even result in the wine being returned to the warehouse if there is no one available to sign for the goods or the payment of duties has not been pre-arranged.
The only solution for air-freighting wine is to use a logistics company associated to handling food and perishables, as they will have dedicated airline food grade cargo containers that are temperature-controlled and maintain a certain atmosphere. Yes, it is more expensive however, what is the point of irreversibly-damaged wine? Point in case, I was at a fine dining restaurant in Singapore recently where a shipment of air-freighted wines had just arrived and the proprietor enthusiastically encouraged our entourage to chose from the selection. As it turned out the wine chosen, a 2004 Domaine Leroy Vosne-Romanee Red Burgundy of great repute and equivalent price had obviously been exposed to temperature extremes with the cork breaking through both a wax top and lead capsule and the wine cloudy as a result of a protein haze, as unfiltered, un-fined wholesome Pinot Noirs are highly prone to do when mistreated.
New Technology Is The Key
Furthermore, having participated in several tasting panels and attended many trade tasting and functions over the years around Asia, I have encountered an alarming amount of wines, across all price points, that are out of condition and clearly associated with poor storage and handling. Contributing to this is the emphasis to satisfy demand of lower price points but hindered by prohibitive duties and taxes and extortionist margins in establishments that do not provide commensurate level of service and due care. All this adds credence to the widely held theory that Asia is a dumping ground for cheap wine, which is highly detrimental to the producers and sellers that are acting with integrity.
Winemakers are increasingly concerned that their products reach the table in optimum condition but are constrained by the minority of reputable merchants, whose portfolios are already bursting. Smart microchip technology is beginning to play a role with radio frequency identification (RFID) whereby small tags are attached to cartons that can track shipments and the temperature that the wine has been exposed to.
It is only a matter of time before this technology is attached to the wine labels itself and consumers will be able to identify if a wine has been mistreated. It is pertinent that I mention screwcap technology, which eliminates all the problems associated with cork inadequacies and, moreover, avoids cork taint (mould caused by the chemical TCA or trichloraninsole). Screwcaps do not prevent the chemistry changes caused by excessive heat or light however, they go a long way toward buffeting the effects of rough treatment, primarily invalidating the oxidative problems associated with cork movement, but also combating the uncongenial environments of supermarkets, badly-designed stores, restaurant conditions and the expectation that wine will survive vertical floor stacks, display shelves, long sojourns in restaurateur’s fridges and variables of home consumption.
While New World producers — mainly Australia and New Zealand — have been quick to realise the benefits of screwcaps, it is mind-boggling how many European producers, particularly the French, stubbornly cling to tradition or marketability as an excuse to persist with the cork. It is not my intention to intimidate or dishearten your enthusiasm for wine with this explanation of the industry logistics. To the contrary, I hope the information will increase awareness so that next time you are communicating with your wine merchant, prudently enquire about how they ship or store their wine. If super-premium wine is involved, then shipment by reefer or specialised airfreight and impeccable storage conditions is imperative.
Respectively, your sommelier or restaurateur should be equally versed with the providence of the wines they are selling. Reputable merchants with excellent standards and integrity do exist in most Asian metropolises and are deserving of more support from wine consumers and the hospitality industry, which at the same time should be isolating the irresponsible opportunists.
“The reality is, all wine is extremely fragile and highly susceptible to temperature fluctuations, light and oxegen.”
This article was publish in Cuisine & Wine Asia. All Rights Reserved.