The polar vortex is not kind to wine


During our recent harsh cold spell, I received a six pack of white wines that were adversely affected by the weather during shipping. Three of the bottles showed signs of significant cold-induced precipitation of tartrate crystals in the wine. (I’ll elaborate in a moment.) The other three bottles had corks that were pushed so far up the neck of the bottle that they were more out than in.

Once the temperature falls below freezing, concern for our wine is warranted. Our concern is not as much for the wine itself as for the bottle of wine. In a bottle, the wine will expand as it freezes, increasing pressure on the cork and potentially also on the integrity of the bottle.

The cork may be pushed up the neck, as in my unfortunate bottles, and eventually right out of the bottle altogether. Once the airtight seal between cork and bottle is broken, oxidation (excessive exposure to oxygen) can become a real problem, eventually spoiling the wine. Should the bottle start to leak, the problem could become messy too.

Alcoholic beverages have a freezing point between the freezing point of water (32°F) and the freezing point of pure ethanol (-173°F). Most alcoholic beverages contain more water than alcohol, so the danger zone for freezing is much closer to the temperature of your freezer. Those of us who have forgotten wine in a freezer for rapid chilling, or left a wine in the trunk of a car during a blizzard, know that wine can become part slushy, and eventually like ice once temperatures drop below 20°F.

If the bottle cracked, the effects of the cold will become obvious upon discovery. A cold-induced compromise of the cork seal isn’t always so immediately apparent, however. When the cold strikes, keep an eye out for a sticky cork, stickiness between bottle and foil capsule, or even for wine stains under the capsule. Even when these tell-tale signs are evident, the only definite way to know how the broken seal may have affected the wine is to open the bottle and taste the contents.

Extreme cold temperatures can also, as in the case of my poor bottles, cause a wine to prematurely precipitate tartrates, That’s winemaker-speak for harmless crystalline deposits, principally made up potassium acid tartrate, that separate from wines during both fermentation and aging.

These tartrate deposits can look like little shards of glass in white wines. in reds they tend to blend in with other sediment. Though harmless, they are unappealing to most, and downright scary to some. Still, this precipitation usually doesn’t have much effect on the taste of the wine.
As I contemplate all this, I do so while sipping a glass of:

De La Rosa, Chai 18, Organic Welschriesling, 2015 ($20; mevushal): This is an expressive, refreshing, aromatic, and a little fruity, medium-dry Austrian welschriesling — unrelated to the Riesling grape — with enjoyable aromas and flavors of ripe green apple, citrus, some subtle tropical fruit notes and all supported by somewhat bracing acidity. Versatile and food friendly. Serve lightly chilled. L’chaim!

Send your wine and liquor questions and challenges to [email protected].

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here