As prices for Bordeaux wine reach ever more astonishing levels, chateaux owners are finally tackling the tricky, and long ignored, issue of shipping and transport conditions by testing a new temperature tracking device.
"Fine wine is often shipped in worse conditions that ice cream or lettuce," said Christian Butzke, former winemaker and now professor at Purdue University in Indiana in the United States.
Butzke is acting as independent advisor to the Boston-based eProvenance project, run by Eric Vogt, Harvard professor, wine lover and high-tech start-up entrepreneur.
Vogt's eProvenance system includes a tamper-proof seal, a hidden code and an electronic tag for each bottle, but it is the temperature tracking element that is causing ripples.
Extreme heat, extreme cold, and fluctuations of temperature are all problems for wine, but heat is often the hardest to spot. A frozen bottle might have its cork pushed out, show residue in the bottle, or simply be broken.
The damage done to a wine's taste, smell and colour by extreme heat is something that can go unnoticed until opened -- despite having possibly paid anywhere in the region of 500 to 1,000 or more euros for it.
Over the last six months, about 1,200 cases of wine from some of Bordeaux's top chateaux, including Lynch Bages and Haut Bailly, as well as others who do not wish to be named, have had Vogt's tracking devices -- a credit card sized bit of plastic which carries a radio frequency identification system -- inserted in their wooden shipping cases.
The cases have been sent to locations in the United States, Britain and Japan and will be used to benchmark the kinds of temperatures that fine wine encounters on its normal journey to the consumer.
The fact that temperature damage often goes undetected is also partly due to its fragmented distribution system, starting in Bordeaux, where wholesale merchants buy from chateaux, and then resell to importers or retailers around the world.
Producers, most of whom say their responsibility stops at the front gate, often ignore who is buying their wines and how they get from chateaux to shop.
But as prices for fine wines increase, along with the risk of fraud, traceability is becoming more of an issue for the consumer.
Concurrently, as producers -- who have become stars themselves -- begin to host tastings in China, Russia, South Korea or the US, they are realising that what's in the bottle sometimes doesn't taste as good as it does at home.
"We make the best quality wine we can and don't want mistakes in delivery," said Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages, who has begun trials with the property's white wine, Blanc de Lynch Bages.
"I have never had a problem, but we have all had doubts about bottles we have seen, with leaking corks for example, so we can see the wines might not have been shipped in optimal conditions," said Cazes, who already takes the precaution of not shipping Lynch Bages from June to September.
Prolonged high temperatures, says Butzke, "speed-age" wines, which go brown and start to lose some of their fresher, fruit tastes.
"Up to two years aging can take place in one week, if temperatures exceed 40 degrees, or, if they get higher than 25 degrees for two to three weeks, as can happen in the Panama Canal," said Butzke, currently in the process of drawing up a set of temperature guidelines.
Gavin Quinney of Chateau Bauduc, a lesser known Bordeaux chateaux but which supplies Gordon Ramsey's three-star restaurant in London, also decided to test the new system, having seen what can happen to wine, even before it leaves Bordeaux.
"I've seen wine sitting out in the blazing sun, on the forecourts of shipping companies. In June 2005 for example, there were cases of top grand cru Bordeaux, and it was not there for just a short while. It is just not good for the wine," he said.
"I've also had the experience of going out with wealthy clients here, just last week in fact, who ordered a 300-euro Angelus and a 300-euro Pavie-Macquin which was cooked," he said.
Where in the supply chain it happened Quinney could only guess, but, he said, there is no doubt there is a problem, and it's much greater than anyone realises, or wants to admit.
What is bizarre thing about the current situation, Quinney said, is that grapes are treated like caviar during harvest and wine making, then, once the bottles are shipped out the door, anything can happen.
As to who will finally be responsible for the results of the temperature tracking trial when they become available -- before the end of the year, Butzke hopes -- the answer is not clear.
"We have never had a problem," said Veronique Sanders, director of Chateau Haut Bailly, which sent off two or three cases equipped with tracking devices to different customers in the United States last October. "But what I hope, is that this will make everyone in the chain -- merchants, importers, distributors and retailers -- more vigilant."
Or, as Butzke puts it: "We really need to get a grip on the distribution system, because what we are talking about here, in terms of taste, smell and colour, is what makes the difference between a (cheap Australian) Yellow Tail and a (highly expensive French) Margaux."