A Tale of Two Corks (Never Judge a Wine by Its Enclosure)

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Just when I thought I had understood, at least roughly, the relationship between the condition of a bottle’s cork enclosure and its contents within, I come across this, throwing what I more or less knew out the window.

I was very fortunate to acquire two bottles of 2003 Mount Mary Pinot Noir. I opened the first after giving the wine about a week to settle. It was very good, but not great. Lovely colour, soft and silky on the palate, with a pleasant earthy character. It needed some time in the decanter to come together, and when it did, it was immensely enjoyable.

Despite all that, I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed. I sort of expected more. Don’t get me wrong: it was a very classy wine, comparable to a fine village-level Burgundy (just short of Premier Cru status). However, this felt like it had already peaked and didn’t appear to have much staying power.

Several weeks later, I couldn’t resist giving it another try, so I opened the second bottle.

Woah, what a huge difference!

This time, it seemed very youthful,  with lots of power in the fruit, mellowed into a harmoniously luxurious and seductive wine, redolent of chocolate, truffle, rich ripe fruit, lovely secondary characters with hints of mint, liquorice, anise and other spices. Simply sublime!  Comparable to a top quality Premier Cru (or even Grand Cru) Burgundy.

This wine bore a similar “character” or soul, as I like to think of it, as the first. After all, it is the same wine. Both acquired at the same time from the same source; both have the same provenance and were cellared professionally.

So why this amazing difference?

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I examined the corks from both bottles. Guess which cork was from the second (better) bottle, and which was from the first.

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Surprisingly, the tired looking cork on the left (the slightly distorted one with purple stain running down it) came from the *better* bottle, while the nearly perfect one on the right came from the first bottle!

Go figure.

I think both had similar ullage to start with, so why the difference? I guess I may never know… Wine is like people: with an organic, evolving life. Even identical twins brought up under similar environments can turn out differently.

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet
(Tasted 29 September 2013)

The first time I tasted the 1990 vintage of this cuvée was on 9 April 2000. I haven’t, to my mind, tasted a better Australian wine since then.

Naturally, I was very eager for the opportunity to acquire this bottle, some 13 years later, to see if it still holds up to expectations.

Uncorking an aged bottle of wine is quite a fine art that is very little appreciated. You need the right kind of corkscrew, not too thick and sufficiently long, so it gently goes right to the end of the cork without stressing it. Based on how easily it penetrates the cork, you’ll have an idea of its condition; if it goes in too easily, the cork might be compromised and break apart. The cork in this 23-year old wine was delicate, but it came out intact. Wine had very slowly seeped to the top, leaving slight encrustation under the capsule; but nothing to worry about. I was a little relieved.

A quick sniff suggested that I would be pleased although the brittleness of the cork indicated it might not keep much longer. No severe indication of cork taint, though. Aromas of sweet blackcurrant dominated, followed by hints of secondary woody characters.

After decanting, I poured a little into a large Bordeaux wine glass, swirled gently, then had my first sip.

Confusion followed.

For the first half hour after opening, I was confronted with opposing impressions.

On one hand, it reminded me of a 1978 Mouton Rothschild I had about 5 years ago. Aged Bordeaux. In fact, if tasted blind, I would have thought it was indeed a Bordeaux. A very old one. It was soft and silky smooth with very fine tannins and hardly any sediment or encrustation. The colour was reddish purple, low in viscosity owing to a modest 12.5% alcohol content, with little of those long lingering legs that typify big reds. On the nose, more blackcurrant and hints of yeasty toast. Soft like silk on the palate, drier than suggested by the smell of the cork.

Simultaneously, a hint of something disturbing: possible cork taint or oxidation. Perhaps I am over sensitive to this; however, it was so subtle I wasn’t sure. Or perhaps it was a sense of elements in the wine not coming together, falling apart, as the wine aged. I encounter this in many aged wine over 20 years old. Even with big age-worthy Australian Shirazes. This wine did not have the high alcohol content, nor the jammy ripe fruitiness, to mask it.  A hint of mustiness came and went in my glass, suggesting that this wine had already peaked. I poured more wine from the decanter to make sure. I wondered if this wine was indeed past its peak.

Then over an hour later, something remarkable happened. Contrary to what one would expect with delicate old wines, instead of falling flat, things started to come together. The wine began a dramatic transformation in my glass, and a hidden power from within began to reveal itself. I was very pleasantly surprised. It was as though the wine was finally able to breathe after 23 years. As the hint of mustiness dissipated, a fragrant aroma of fruit and secondary earthy characters came to the fore: subtle yet taut and confident. Soft, mellow and very seductive; yet, bold and well-structured, a perfect complement to the roast lamb I had. And it only continued to surprise: three hours later virtually everything had come together. (I planned to save a little for the following day, to see how it would evolve; however, I ran out of wine!)

To conclude, I feel that this wine has lived up to my expectations, although I do think that it has peaked and, depending on the condition of the cork, should be drunk now. Of course, those in magnums would have potential for further development for there is certainly a hidden power that is strongly reminiscent of what I experienced when I first tasted it in 2000.

Enjoy on its own or with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and a duck.

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(Tasted: 9 April 2000)

Notes:
Deep purple-red, with attractive viscous legs. On the nose, a powerful, complex mélange of rich, ripe berries and sweet oak leaps out of the glass. Certainly, it is reminiscent of the finest Bordeaux with its dense, robust, intense multifarious flavours and harmoniously integrated tannins. With its great firm, well-proportioned body and superb structure, this wine obviously has years ahead of it! A simply transcendental experience that is quite unforgettable! (Its pairing with the chargrilled Kangaroo loin was simply perfect!)

Introduction

Sautéed chicken & mushroom in spicy chili garlic port sauce with white truffle & cheese paste

I am not an expert on wine & food. But I love them. I love to drink wine & I love eating. I love to cook & invent (weird) recipes. I love to pair wines with food I cook. And I love to share my experiences with others.

With this blog, I hope to connect with those who may share similar interests.

I started on a weird food blog (plus a complementary Facebook page & a compilation of selected recipes) some time back:

http://100weirdfood.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/weirdfoodrecipes

http://www.photobox.co.uk/creation/1359459316

Feel free to explore & share your thoughts!

Cheers!

Chih Min Chan