Playing Russian Roulette with the First Growths

At a wine dinner with Bordeaux first growths from 1985 to 1996, the big surprise was not the quality of the wines, but the huge variation between different bottles of the same wine. Although in each case the wines had been acquired from the same source and stored together, there was not a single instance in which two bottles of the same wine tasted the same.

The 1985 Haut Brion was the greatest puzzle. The first bottle showed a funky, quasi-medicinal nose, which seemed to suggest the possibility of Brett (unlikely though that might seem for this château), although the palate cleared a bit in the glass. It was actually subtle enough that I quite liked it. The second bottle went completely in the opposite direction, showing elegant fruits, but a squeaky-clean character with  that came close to eviscerating the character of Haut Brion.

Next came Angelus 2003. (Yes, I know this was not a first growth at the time, but the organizers evidently took a broad view of the term. Anyway, you wouldn’t balk at including Mouton Rothschild pre-1973 in a first growth tasting.) First bottle was fairly restrained, with rather flat aromatics, and the character of Cabernet Franc pushed a bit into the background. It never came to life. A second bottle showed more aromatic lift with a greater sense of structure at the end. A third bottle showed a more exotic impression, more sense of the precision of Cabernet Franc, with heightened sense of elegance; the very antithesis of any thought that the heat of 2003 might have given a jammy wine, it was one of the more elegant wines of the evening, while the first bottle was one of the most disappointing.On to Mission Haut Brion 1990, where the first bottle was absolutely true to the typicity of the chateau and appellation, with elegant fruits and faint sense of cigar box in the background. The next bottle showed flattened aromatics to the point at which all the life seemed to go out of the wine. While the first bottle was fabulous, the second was merely ordinary.

We went into high gear with Ausone 1996, where the aromatics of the first bottle seemed to point more to the elegance of the left bank than the richness of the right bank. Beautifully integrated, with a sense of seamless layers of flavor, the wine showed something of the ethereal quality of a great vintage of Lafite. A second bottle had a slightly sweaty nose, a faint sense of gunflint, and gave an overall impression of reduction. A third bottle was between the first two, with a flattened profile but not obviously reduced, and a fourth was almost as good as the first.

The first bottle of Lafite 1986 was a bit flat aromatically; although showing the precision and elegance of Lafite, a sense of austerity on the finish made it seem almost stern. I took the sense of a somewhat hard edge to the wine to be the character of the vintage and was uncertain whether it would dissipate with further aging. But a second example showed that this was the character of the bottle rather than the vintage: it really sung, with that ethereal quality of Lafite showing as a seamless impression of precise, elegant fruits, all lightness of being.

With Mouton Rothschild 1989 there was another sort of surprise. The first pour (from a decanter) showed the plush power of Pauillac, very much Cabernet-driven, with black, plumy fruits. A second pour (from another decanter) showed just a little more aromatic lift. The difference between these two was much slighter than between any of the preceding pairs. Here’s the rub: the Mouton came from a single Imperial. The fact that there was any difference at all is surprising, although I have had this experience before, when some pours from an Imperial seemed to be corked while others were pure (I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial). Interestingly this was also from a Mouton 1989.

The notion there can be differences within a single (large) bottle is disturbing. I think this warrants a proper investigation. I will undertake a thorough experiment if given a supply of Imperials of first growth claret (Mouton from 1989 would be preferred). We will extract the cork and take samples from the top and bottom using a very long pipette, without stirring up the wine at all. Then we will know if proximity to the cork and oxygen on the one hand, or to the sediment on the other, makes any difference within the bottle.

It is not so surprising there should be differences between bottles. After all, if you buy a case of wine and store it for ten or twenty years, you can see at a glance that every bottle has a different level. Differences in ullage imply differences in exposure to oxygen that might well affect the flavor spectrum. But the comparisons in this tasting went well beyond minor differences, to the point at which in each flight there was one bottle that was unquestionably first growth, and one bottle that was disappointing enough to cast doubt on that status.

One moral is that if you are at a tasting where there are second pours from a different bottle, always get a fresh glass for the second pour. Another is to ask whether there is really any point at all in tasting notes, projections of aging, or recommendations, if every single bottle is going to be different. Certainly this is not what the punter expects when he buys a bottle. The culprit must be the cork (inter alia, the sommelier reported that he had never rejected so many corked bottles in preparing for a tasting, so the worst cases had already been removed).

Is there any alternative? Experience with New World wines suggests that using screwcaps might cause the wines to age more slowly and a little differently, but with greater consistency. I’m sure the argument in Bordeaux would be that it’s a bad idea to risk damaging the product of one of the most successful wine regions in the world, but is it so successful if there is no predictability after twenty years?

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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.