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Refrigerated Wine Shipping: No Wine Left Behind

January 25, 2023
 By Natalie Kienzle
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Refrigerated Wine Shipping: No Wine Left Behind
Last Modified: June 5, 2023
Fine wines come from all over the world, but keeping their top-notch quality from vine to table is a challenge. Depending on origins and destinations, these fine beverages need to be protected from a variety of dangers.
An Introduction   |   Transport Methods   |   Packing Materials   |   Transit Times   |   Delivery Service   |   Temperature Control   |   Effects of Cold   |   Legal Requirements    |   Domestic Shipping   |   International Shipments   |   Our Services

Refrigerated wine shipping has made it possible for fine wines to be enjoyed all over the world. From centuries-old vineyards in France to modern marvels in California’s Napa Valley, winemakers and importers have looked for ways to preserve the taste and structure of wine during transit. Temperature-controlled wine shipping has been the latest solution. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces laws on wine production and labeling, but not transportation. The use of reefer trailers for wine shipments is useful for maintaining steady temperatures. Ideal temperatures for preservation are between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 50% to 60%.  

See how you can maintain the high quality of your fine vintages through the use of temperature-controlled wine shipping services. 

Refrigerated Wine Shipping: Protect the Pinot!

Wine has been getting made and distributed for thousands of years – well before refrigerated services were invented. For much of that time, high-quality vintages could only be enjoyed in places relatively close to where they were bottled. 

It’s well known that extreme changes in humidity and temperature have a negative impact on the actual product. There are some varieties that tolerate change better or worse than others. 

Selections that are more sensitive to change are:

  • Pinot Noir
  • Champagne
  • Bordeaux
  • Sauvignon Blanc

Older wines of any variety are also known to be more sensitive to changes and the general movement involved in shipping. Any wine can and will spoil if stored or shipped improperly. 

We are here to help you protect your wine investments and bring the best vintages to the table at their prime every single time.  

refrigerated wine shipping bottles in a cardboard box with separators in place

What is the Best Way to Transport Wine?

Since wine is sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, transportation needs can change seasonally. The best way to transport wine is through systems designed to keep temperature and humidity constant

As a winemaker, you know the best times to harvest, age, and bottle for peak quality. You need a shipping company that can help you maintain the cold chain process you have already spent years building up. 

Even if you already plan to use reefer freight services, other shipping practices come into play such as:

  • Packing materials
  • Transit times
  • Delivery service

Let’s take a closer look at these shipping needs as they impact both domestic and international transportation needs. 

Packing Materials

The right packing materials for transporting wine are going to serve two purposes: 

  • Insulation
  • Protection

Insulation is necessary for temperature control. Even if your wine is traveling as refrigerated freight, you can’t always get a guarantee that crates and pallets will always be in a temperature-controlled environment. 

Since reefers are also designed to maintain temperatures rather than raise or lower them, the right insulation at the time of packing helps with that maintenance. If your freight happens to sit in a standard warehouse for a short time, the insulation makes a difference. 

Common insulation materials include:

  • Polystyrene foam
  • Polyurethane foam
  • Insulated box liners
  • Bubble wrap
  • Styrofoam 
  • Corrugated cardboard

The good news is that these materials also serve as protection against damage. Since fine wines are bottled in glass, this protection is necessary.

Large shipments of wine are heavy and fragile – not the greatest combination. Thankfully, the wood crates preferred by many vineyards are sturdy and designed to keep bottles from impacting one another. For those looking to ship private wine collections, boxes with cardboard separators are used or molded inserts that match the bottle.

Transit Times  

The longer anything is in transit, the higher the risk of damage. This is one of the reasons why marine freight insurance will actually cost you more than either truck or air cargo insurance. 

Ideally, wine shipping in a reefer container across the ocean can be kept at a set temperature the entire time. However, reefer shipments come with significant risks at great distances. 

Common concerns with reefer containers include:

  • Running out of fuel during the journey
  • Electrical malfunctions
  • Poor temperature monitoring

Bad weather during the trip can slow a vessel down. Whatever fuel was allocated towards the reefer with your wine might simply run out. This might happen days before shipments are unloaded. 

With air and truck freight, this isn’t as much of a problem. Actual transit time in air freight is measured in terms of hours. Most trucks make their deliveries within a few days or less. 

Aside from actual travel time, the season in which the wine is transported matters too. A shipment from Napa Valley to Los Angeles or Tuscon during the summer might face outdoor temperatures in the triple digits. Shipments coming into Florida or the Gulf Coast states have to deal with a relative humidity of 90% or more during spring and summer. 

Depending on distance, location, and season, there are a few things shippers can request.

  • Overnight shipping when temperatures are cooler
  • Requesting use of an insulated trailer
  • Refrigerated cross docking services for deliveries
  • Use of electronic temperature monitoring devices  

In terms of timing your wine shipments, refrigerated or otherwise, when it takes place is just as important to know as how long it will take to arrive. 

Delivery Service

Once you have the how and the when taken care of, it comes down to the who. Not just any carrier is going to have the know-how it takes to bulk ship fine wines. You may be shipping as part of a B2B system or moving your wine collection across the country. In either case, you want to preserve quality. 

When looking for a refrigerated wine shipping service, check for certain qualities like:

  • Availability of white-glove service
  • Refrigerated storage facilities
  • Refrigerated LTL services
  • Air-ride suspension shipping
  • Liftgate services

The chemical makeup of fine wines makes them susceptible to damage from rough handling. Shaking or even strong vibrations during transit can result in what vintners call bottle shock. When this happens, the smell and flavor of the wine will be lowered or nonexistent when opened. 

In most cases, bottle shock won’t permanently damage wine, even the more delicate varieties like Pinot Noir. Most shippers will let you know that you should simply wait a few days or weeks before opening a bottle that has just been shipped, especially if the journey was far.  

Even so, recovery isn’t guaranteed. Any service that provides a smoother ride for your wine reduces the likelihood of damaging bottle shock during shipping. 

Meanwhile, a white glove delivery service is going to go the extra step to make sure that deliveries are dropped exactly where you want them. It would be a shame for you to go through all the hassle of carefully packing and timing your shipment only to find that your prized order has been left outside the shop or on your driveway in the hot sun.

wine bottles in a factory fill assembly line

Temperature Controlled Wine Shipping: At What Temperature Can Wine be Shipped?

Wine shipping in a reefer trailer should be kept between 55॰ to 65॰ Fahrenheit. This is the ideal temperature, although actual tolerance may be higher depending on the vintage. The average red blend or Chardonnay can tolerate higher temperatures in the mid-70s for example. 

How long a wine is exposed to elevated temperatures is also a factor. Most shippers would agree that 30 minutes is the maximum time that wines can tolerate temperatures of 80॰ Fahrenheit before damage is irreversible. 

Signs that shipping temperatures were too high for too long are:

  • Pushed out or bulging corks
  • Sticky residue around the neck of the bottle
  • Changed color (yellowing or browning)
  • Lack of aroma when opened

While a hot bottle of wine can sometimes be revived, nothing can bring back a wine that has started to oxidize. Oxidation occurs when corks are loosened and oxygen enters the bottle.

Once the internal temperature of wine reaches 86॰, it starts to chemically cook. At that point, the lovely French Merlot you thought you’d enjoy after work becomes nothing more than an overpriced bottle of vinegar.

Recommended Temperatures By Wine Variety

VarietiesTemperature Range in Fahrenheit
Sparkling White Wines40॰ – 45॰
Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling45॰ – 55॰
Chardonnay or Chianti50॰ – 55॰
Pinot Noir or Merlot55॰ – 60॰ 
Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz60॰ – 65॰
Source: WebstaurantStore.com

The varieties mentioned serve as representatives of the different body types that categorize hundreds of different wines. If you aren’t sure of the ideal temperature for a specific variety, refer to its body type. 

Different wine body types include:

  • Sparkling
  • Light bodied/sweet
  • Medium bodied
  • Full bodied

As a general rule, the lighter the body, the lower the average temperature needed to keep it at peak flavor.  

Can Cold Temperatures Ruin Wine?

We’ve discussed at length how heat can ruin a shipment of wine. For one, it’s the most common issue that shippers and carriers need to deal with. Cold, the other extreme, also has its own issues.  

Cold temperatures can ruin wines by causing damage to the bottle and cork. The alcohol content in wine is not high enough to prevent it from freezing. It will take longer and require colder temperatures, but it will freeze. 

Why is this bad for buyers and shippers? Science 101 – liquid expands upon freezing. Glass bottles are not designed to flex. If wine is frozen during shipping, there is a high likelihood that bottles will crack or even explode due to the pressure of the frozen contents. 

Even if the wine doesn’t freeze completely, the temperature changes can still damage the cork. At that point, you face the same issues as you would with heat. Loose corks mean oxygen, oxidizing, and bad wine. 

Worker in a forklift inside of a warehouse of wooden barrels.

Shipping alcohol of any kind is going to put you up against a few legal regulations in the U.S. and overseas. As mentioned at the start, these regulations don’t focus on how the wine is transported. 

Whether you are shipping internationally or domestically, most alcohol shipping regulations have to do with taxes and label requirements

Domestic Shipping

To transport alcohol in several states in the U.S., drivers must carry or apply for a special permit or license. The split is about 50/50 between states that do or don’t have significant transport permit laws. 

You should also be aware that laws are applied differently even in states that do have permit requirements. 

  • In Utah, shipping alcohol directly to a home is a felony
  • In Alabama and Mississippi, local businesses are not allowed to ship products directly to consumers
  • Rhode Island and Arkansas buyers who want wines shipped to their homes must order it in person from the winery to be issued a permit
  • Wineries in Louisiana can choose to ship B2B or B2C, but not both 
  • Dry countries in various states do not permit alcohol within their borders at all, even for transport

Wine and other types of alcohol are sold in every state. Buyers, shippers, and carriers may just need to pay the right kind of tax for their preferred shipping and delivery method. 

In terms of shipping, you simply need to work with a carrier who is familiar with different state regulations. Shipments that travel across multiple states may need to file for multiple permits or licenses. 

If you ship your wine via air cargo, you might avoid the need for some permits. However, the cost of air cargo makes this a very expensive option. Many domestic shippers don’t feel the expense is worthwhile. 

International Shipping

For vineyards and wineries overseas that wish to import wine into the U.S., they must manage customs inspection and import tariffs. 

There are three agencies that affect international shipments:

  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)

Wine falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA as a food. This means that imported products need to meet the food safety standards used for products made domestically. There are also specific items that must be placed on labels. 

The TTB offers some guidelines for importers for needs such as:

  • Formula approvals
  • Wine statistics
  • Certifications
  • Excise taxes

For more information on these proceedings, you can contract the services of a customs broker. To make sure that you have the refrigerated freight services you need, an international freight forwarder with connections in the reefer shipping business is preferred. 

Avoid ‘Pour’ Decisions With USA Refrigerated Freight

A fine wine or champagne can bring to mind the rolling hills of Tuscany or the mountain regions of Chile with just a single sip. At USA Refrigerated Freight, we have the necessary refrigerated wine shipping services to help you make that a reality. 

Top-notch drinks deserve a service committed to quality and high standards. 

Ship your wine in refrigerated reefers internationally and domestically with USA Refrigerated Freight. 

Call us today at (866) 849-4923 to speak with an experienced representative. If you already have the details of your shipment ready and need a services quote, please fill out an online form so we can best serve your needs. 

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