I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial

I was at a wine dinner last night which served three first growths from 1989 all from Imperial. The Margaux was surprisingly earthy, the Latour was the standout–it may become ethereal if we live long enough to see it–but the Mouton was variable. I tried three glasses: the first was definitely corked, the second was on the edge, and the third seemed fine at first, but showed signs of cork taint an hour later. A normal enough experience, you might say, especially since 1989 was a period when cork taint was perhaps at its peak–but I believe all three glasses came from the same Imperial (equivalent to 8 bottles). Bottle variation is common enough, but how can there be variation within a bottle?

This set me wondering about the diffusion of TCA from the cork into the wine. I’ve never regarded a corked bottle as being anything other than simply corked, by which I mean that the wine is spoiled, and that’s the end of it. But if the bottle is large enough, is it possible that the top has a greater concentration of TCA, and that the contaminant might not have diffused to the bottom? The idea is rather at odds with the usual analogy used to explain the power of cork taint: a couple of teaspoonfuls is enough to contaminate a swimming pool. It’s never been suggested that the deep end would be less affected than the shallow end.

Certainly I’ve never been able to detect cork taint by sniffing the cork, which I assume is the purpose of the exercise when it’s presented to you at a restaurant, even when it’s obvious in the wine: I suppose it needs to be dissolved in the liquid to be effective. But suppose a bottle has been lying down ever since release, with some TCA in the cork. It’s going to diffuse into the wine, and the nature of diffusion is that its concentration will be greatest nearest the source, that is, the cork. If the bottle is very large, perhaps the difference might be great enough to detect in the glass. (How much time is needed for diffusion: would such an effect be more marked when the wine is young?) On the other hand, the moment the wine is poured, the liquid will be stirred up, and the TCA should become generally distributed. (And moving the bottle around would certainly have a homogenizing effect.)

So I’m mystified. It’s difficult to see how there could be significant variation in cork taint between one end of the bottle and the other, but the fact is that three glasses were all different. Logic or no logic, as a precaution I think in future I will try to have my pours from the bottom of the Imperial rather than the top.

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An Exercise in Bottle Variation in Less Than Twenty Years

An evening of 1998 Pomerol was as much a demonstration in the difficulty of judging wines at this age due to individual variation as an opportunity to get a bead on this unusual vintage, where the right bank performed well but the left bank was miserable.sunset24

Sunset over Pomerol. The church at the center of the village is on the right

We started with La Conseillante. The first bottle was corked, okay that’s an occupational hazard. The second bottle was slightly corked. Bad luck. The third bottle was brilliant, typical La Conseillante, giving that impression of iron in the soil you get from the edge of Pomerol, fully on form from what has always been one of my favorite chateaux.

A bottle of L’Eglise Clinet was rather restrained for Pomerol, with a fresh sense of acidity to the palate, almost at the edge of piquancy. But then a second bottle showed clear, pure fruits with more spice, and a greater sense of Cabernet Franc, perhaps more in line with expectations from St. Emilion, but very fine. Presumably the second represents the real l’Eglise Clinet, but without any obvious flaw in the first bottle, it would have been easy to dismiss the chateau.

Clinet showed as softer than Eglise Clinet, more Merlot-ish but again quite restrained. Fresh, pure, good structure but not obtrusive. Ah, but a second bottle showed greater fruit purity, more sense of spice, gorgeous. I would not buy Clinet based on the first bottle, but I would definitely buy it based on the second.

No problems with Trotanoy: spicy, full, pure, very refined impressions of Merlot. Then Vieux Chateau Certan, which some people described as sexy, and which for me seemed more typical Pomerol, which is perhaps why Trotanoy, with more restraint, was my favorite.

Then back to bottle problems. The first bottle of Le Gay was quite undeveloped, somewhere between rich and structured, with good acidity, but no very distinct character. This is just not a very good wine, said my neighbor. Then a second bottle showed greater fruit and precision, with distinctly more purity.

So out of six wines, only two were unequivocally in peak condition. (And, of course, it might be that because they were so good we did not ask to try another bottle, but there could have been less successful bottles at other tables.) In the four cases where the first bottle presented a problem, only the La Conseillante was obviously corked. If a second bottle had not been available, it would have been easy to put all the other cases down to poor winemaking. This is a real killer for the chateaux.

There was no question of provenance here, each wine had been bought as a lot in good conditions, usually en primeur, and stored properly. So what can it be but the corks? This is woefully unacceptable. If an appliance, say a refrigerator, performed with such variability, its manufacturer would go out of business.

I’ve never really liked the idea of screwcaps for red wines destined for aging, because I worry about problems of reduction, but when I’ve had the opportunity to compare the same wines bottled under cork and screwcap (specifically in New Zealand and Australia, where the wines were about ten years old), the screwcap wine was always fresher and younger. Whether it would ultimately age in the same way as a wine under cork is the big question in my mind. I think it is time for the chateaux in Bordeaux to do some experiments and find out.