Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

To cork or not to cork …

Corked bottles continue to be a real problem.  Some years ago I visited a fine new winery in Campania, Southern Italy, and over lunch in the spectacular winery restaurant had a corked bottle.  I didn’t think about it anymore until at dinner we ordered the same wine in a local Naples trattoria and it was corked, as inviting as a wet blanket.  The waiter replaced it without fuss. He asked if we wanted something else instead and we said ‘no’, we would like another bottle of the same.  However, the next bottle was corked too.  That was three in a row of the same bottle, so clearly there was a batch problem.  We then accepted the offer of different bottle and believe it or not, it was also corked … we drank that one and looked forward to the day when this problem is either solved or all everyday bottles are under screwcap. 

David Another member of one of our local tasting groups, a professional, tells the story of being served a corked wine in an expensive, wine-themed restaurant and then being told by the wine waiter that the wine was as it should be … He offered to pay for both bottles if a second was the same as the first, or, if it wasn’t, the restaurant should foot the bill.   Something had obviously gone wrong with staff training on that day! 

It is one thing if an everyday wine turns out to be spoiled but quite another when the wines are of a high quality and have been lovingly stored for years.  A minor nuisance and the possibility of a bit of embarrassment in a restaurant is replaced by a genuine loss.  At a recent blind tasting, out of ten bottles no less than three were seriously defective, two corked and one prematurely oxidised.   One was the bottle I had taken, F Cotat’ s Sancerre called (appropriately enough, Les Monts Damnés) but the real loss was a mature red Burgundy of some real quality, 1996 Nuits St Georges, Chauvenet.  A bottle of Condrieu was badly oxidised.  This is a pretty high rate of attrition, if unusual, but it shows there is a real problem. 

However, wine lovers are a pretty forgiving lot and our memories of that evening will be of the splendid and varied wines that we did taste, not the 30% which on that particular evening were defective.

Four aged whites showed how difficult it is to spot white wines with bottle age. First up was a Fumé Blanc 1989 from Robert Mondavi, part of the then fashion in California to mimic the barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc of the Loire. What was striking about this wine was its continuing acidic youthfulness, despite its 21 years, even though the tell-tale gooseberry smell of Sauvignon Blanc had gone. No tertiary development but citrus fruit.  An evening of coincidences continued with a wine from the same year but in a completely different, and in this case recognisable, style:  Schloss Schönburg’s Schlossgarten, Geisenheim, Riesling Spätlese, 1989.   A deep amber yellow in colour (just about visible in the middle picture above), this had a slight petrol nose with characteristic excellent acidity to offset the sweetness.  Third up was the late Johnny Hugel’s Tokay Pinot Gris ‘Hugel’, from the preceding year, 1988. Unlike the Riesling Spätlese from nearby Germany, which will have been ‘stopped’ in its fermentation to preserve sweetness, this wine is produced from late-harvested grapes, producing a richer, more alcoholic wine, with marked honey notes on the nose. 

GewurzThe final white was another treat, a mere baby of ten years but from a Grand Cru Alsace vineyard.  Cave de Turckheim’s Gewürztraminer from the Brand vineyard, 2000.  At this age, and with this highly distinctive grape, fruit flavours are still to the fore: lychees and flowers, followed by a lovely, luscious texture, quite substantial. 

The reds opened up with a birthday wine. Some of us are slightly nostalgic about our 40th birthday and can just about remember it.  I certainly didn’t celebrate it with a bottle from the year of my birth, but then you wouldn’t as I am not a ‘good year’! By contrast, Ch. Leoville La Cases 1970, from St Julien in Bordeaux, was mildly clovey, medium weight, with acidity to the fore despite its age, with smooth tannins. Happy Birthday, David!  You are wearing a lot better than the label on the bottle. 

 The final two wines were split by supper.  First the rarity from South Africa, Rust en Vrede, Stellenbosch, 1999, an estate blend which is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.  Clearly a warm climate wine, with lots of burnt, toasty notes, dense fruit, even a bit of sweaty leather (in a nice way of course) and rich.  Bringing up the tail was the baby of the bunch, Casavyc’s Morellino di Scansano 2007, which foxed most people with its densely textured, complex and slightly olivey cherry-to-plum fruit. Its made mostly from Sangiovese but grown in a warm climate in Southern Tuscany, plus the local varieties, Ciliegiolo, Malvasia nera and Alicante. It comes from a very young winery which Janet and I visited in the summer (click here) and stood up well in this exalted company.  So who remembers the corked bottles now? 

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