I’ve had a really bad run with corks over the past month.
It began during a series of tastings for journalists in London. In one tasting the final three wines (Crucible Shiraz 2003, Lynchpin 2005 and our 2003 Cabernet Franc blend) were not showing well. There wasn’t any obvious cork taint, but in each case the flavour had been stripped out of the wines. The danger, of course, is that I knew there was something wrong with the specific bottles; a stranger to the wines would just have assumed that they were supposed to taste like this. Of course, it is horribly bad luck to have the three top wines at the end of a tasting all suffer from cork problems, and it’s never happened to me on this magnitude before.
The other was a debate I initiated on the basis of a comparison of cork-sealed and screwcapped bottles of 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS. All I wanted to illustrate was how much more slowly wines under screwcap evolve than under cork. In my experience the wines can remain so tight that consumers will need to be educated to decant screwcapped wines. We ended up having a lengthy conversation (that continued on email) about the wine’s alcohol level (in this case only 14%).
It has to be said that the cork-sealed bottle was served at a significantly warmer temperature than the screwcapped one, which would have accentuated the alcohol (even if it had only been 13%). The main difference, as alluded to above, is that the tannins in the cork-sealed wine were softer, which allowed the flavour of the wine to express itself. Very Important Wine Writer was of the (strongly-expressed) opinion that the cork had oxidised the tannins, which made the wine taste flat, and hence throw the alcohol out of balance.
The following evening I dined at a restaurant for which this wine man had written the wine list, and was delighted to discover the Minervois (previously discussed) that – in my view – had unbalanced alcohol. In response to this on subsequent emails, Very Important Wine Writer once again trotted out his ‘cork oxidising the tannins’ thesis.
Never having been able to keep my mouth shut when a contradictory opinion is buzzing around my head, I then entered the lists. Corks don’t oxidise tannins, oxygen does (which of course enters the wine as a result of the imperfect seal provided by a cork). The part of the wine that balances the alcohol (especially in Cloof wines) is the wonderfully rich mid-palate, which is the product of poly-saccharides and glycerol. Neither of these binds with oxygen.
In the case of the Minervois there was no shortage of tannin; in fact, this may have been one of its redeeming features. What was missing was a huge hole in the mid-palate – components that should have come from the vineyard, and didn’t. The joust has not yet delivered a winner. With two equally stubborn people, both of them totally believing in the rightness their own point of view, how could it?
Earlier this week we visited Mannenberg restaurant in Cape Town’s Waterfront (great live music, by the way). We selected the 2004 Robert Alexander Merlot. The first bottle was fine, but we were obliged to send back bottle numbers two and three as a result of them being corked. At this point the manager asked if we didn’t want to order a different wine. I did my best to explain that the wine had been tainted as a result of a chemical reaction with stuff on the cork, and that she’d be perfectly entitled to return it to the supplier for a refund. When bottle number four was also corked we decided to grin and bear it, rather than risk getting thrown out for being ‘difficult’.
We were both shocked and amused a while later to see the owner sharing the sent-back bottles with his personal guests.