Old wine bottles on a shelf

Breakages, heat, vibrations: travel with fine wine is a high-stakes game. We explore the solutions to stack the odds in your favour

By Kristiane Sherry

As moments of discoveries go, this one is quite the setback. Nothing dulls the spirits quite like an unexpected – and unwelcome – aroma of wine. I’ve been there. Unzipping a case to be met by glistening glass and, in the case of the truly unlucky, an obnoxious red wine stain, undeniably dampens the thrill of travel. Quite frankly, one feels ambushed.

And it’s a problem likely to increase. IWSR data show that sales of Champagne – the most charming of gifts – rose 24 per cent in travel retail last year. And although the number of all wines sold slipped by two per cent in 2021, the value of those bottlings climbed by five per cent. All the more reason to take extra care of wine in transit. 

Especially because wines can be finicky. Moving them comes with hazards beyond breakage. Cellared wines, and those on sale at good retailers (of which there are many in travel retail), should already be stored in their optimum conditions. These particular characters like stable temperatures of 10-15°C, to be kept away from strong light in an environment not too dry, and away from vibrations. From scratchy air-con to choppy turbulence, air travel is far removed from a fine wine’s comfort zone.

So what to do if you’ve got a special bottle to transport, or you’ve picked up a treat on your way through the airport? Plan, prepare, and keep your wits about you.

It’s worth noting that specialist freight shippers are on hand to help. Can you avoid putting the bottle in your case at all? If so, this is by far the best option. 

“Freight shippers pack the bottles in extremely dense bespoke packaging, six bottles are transported in a box roughly three times the size of a regular six-box,” says Paul Hewings, Le Clos terminal manager at renowned Dubai luxury wine and spirits travel retailer, Le Clos. High-end fine wines (US$120+) account for more than 40 per cent of its range, so the team are well-acquainted with the challenges of air travel. “These are then kept in protective containers which are temperature controlled and then placed in the temperature-controlled area of the plane where pets and musical instruments would go.” So, if it’s a precious bottling, treat it like a much-loved pet. The risks are simply too high.

But what if you can’t ship ahead of schedule? There’s lots that both you, and your retailer, can do to keep your shopping in mint condition.

At Le Clos, this means using high-impact resistant, biodegradable netting, developed for the purpose. “Then [it’s] inside the Le Clos carrier bags which are stress tested to carry significantly greater weight than will ever be necessary,” Hewings continues. Anything outsized, or especially delicate, will get its own bespoke wrapping.

Frequent travellers with high-end bottles take note: it is possible to buy specialist wine bags that have bottle shapes cut out to mitigate against the big three risk factors: heat, vibration and shock damage. “At US$500 each they are for people regularly transporting high-value bottles,” Hewings notes.

Some lower-priced alternatives do exist, but due to liquid restrictions through security in most cases, they’re impractical for air travel. The whimsically named Grape Cape is one example – its double-layered, shock-absorbent neoprene is a reusable alternative to bubble wrap. One to consider if liquid restrictions aren’t an issue.

It’s an age-old question: where is the safest spot once on board? For Hewings, it’s always going to be in the overhead locker. “If you’re carrying something extremely valuable then it is tempting to keep it in sight at all times, but in reality, holding a bottle in your hands for a seven-hour flight is only going to increase the chance of dropping it.”

After all, the riskiest moments are always going to be when transitioning from one part of the journey to the next. “People are often hurrying, stressed, tired and have many things to think about when flying and it only takes a momentary loss of attention to knock the bottles off a surface, out of a trolley, or not catch them as they tumble out of the overhead locker.” It’s a wise note of caution. “I can remember a customer sending a photo of the bottles that had been smashed in the back of a taxi in Ho Chi Minh, which is a terrible end for any wine, but a particular shame for first-growth Bordeaux.”

We know fine wines favour stability. But when on the move, temperature fluctuations can be both unpredictable and unavoidable. The general consensus is that as long as heat exposure is brief, the wine will be fine. But some challenges do remain.

“Heat does become an issue if the wine is being transported in the back of a car after a flight for long journeys in hot climates,” Hewings says. And, if not properly stored, inside the hold can be a risk, too. 

Driving also needs thought. “Bottles that were cradled all along their journey get stuffed in the back of a car and get forgotten about overnight or smashed on the way there.” And if you do have a long drive, it’s recommended to wait for as long as possible before opening the bottle. “Vibration is an issue that, mostly, gets resolved if you allow the bottle to be stationary for as long as possible before it is opened.”

Generally, younger wines are more robust and don’t need as much care and attention. “More mature wines are more sensitive in all ways and travel is no different,” says Hewings. There are considerations with all the major risks. “Older bottles are not made from glass that is as strong, vibration will have a greater impact on the greater amount of sediment in more mature wines, and older wines are often more sensitive to heat changes.”

But, as Le Clos’s activity calendar shows, there are always options. “On the whole, everyone is invested in mitigating the risks, so they look after the bottles,” he says. “We have held dinners around the world and are often showing wines that are 30-plus years old, but we look after them on the move, arrive a day early and ensure the bottles are stationary from arrival to pouring so the wines have some time to settle before being served. We’ve never experienced a travel-related issue.”

It’s clear that there are quite significant risks travelling with fine wines – but it is more than possible for the journey to have a happy ending. Do concerns about fragility and conditions in-flight ever put shoppers off?

“I think that as our customers are in the fine wine shop at the airport and are exploring what we have to offer, then they are already fairly comfortable with the level of risk involved,” Hewings reckons. “We do not experience people backing out of purchases because they are not comfortable with carrying bottles onboard. Most of our customers are regulars and have purchased wines often to be transported with them around the world. If they experienced a drop-off in quality, I can guarantee that we would hear about it.”

Travel can be taxing – especially for delicate, demanding fine wines. Shorter journeys should generally be ok. The biggest risk is likely to be from dropping or knocking a bottle. But if you’re travelling long haul with something precious, or you’re in a hot car or train environment, it’s worth taking precautions. If in doubt and it’s a truly precious gem, call in the professionals to make sure it goes the distance.  

Tricks of the trade

How do drinks experts travel with their wares? Two industry insiders share how they make the journey. 

Guy Hodcroft, spirits buyer, Bordeaux Index

“I tend to adopt a somewhat low-tech approach. Line the bottom of your suitcase with clothes and then place the bottle in the middle, wrapped in a thick jumper and wedged in on all sides by other clothes. This saves you travelling with mountains of packaging and has never failed me.”

Mike Best MW, Butinot Wines

“I’ve never marked a checked bag containing wine as ‘fragile’ but I probably should! Usually I just put wine in my case with clothes wrapped around. I haven’t had a breakage yet!”

This article was first published in Travelux issue 2 in September 2022.

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