have you had any bottles of great wine lately
"There are no great wines, only great bottles" said the famous gastronome André Simone. Have you read what international reviewers like Robert Parker have written on particular wines, tasted them yourself and then wondered if the reviewer can possibly be talking about the same ones? I wrote in my last letter about a 1934 Burgundy that I tasted in Scotland and which I found to be quite spectacular in condition and flavour. Would the next bottle of this wine be the same?
Every time 'Dry River' sends wine abroad I ask for one bottle back by air courier (at considerable expense). After letting it rest in our cellar for 6 weeks, we taste it alongside a bottle of the same wine which has not otherwise left the cellar. It should come as no great surprise that wines shipped across the equator or even across the Tasman in warmer months can be quite radically affected. As a consequence, we go to considerable trouble and expense to ship all wine at constant temperatures and we regularly check that the required results are being achieved. To my surprise, such precautions appear to be the exception rather than the rule amongst wine shippers. So why should we expect the bottle that Robert Parker has reviewed to taste the same as the one we try, just because it carries the same label?
Again, while I was in the UK last year I did tastings for the press and was able to review the development in our wines back to our 1995 Pinot noir. To my surprise, the difference between our 1995 Pinot noir stored in a good cellar in London and the one stored in a cellar in Scotland was clearly discernable (although not detrimental). The Scottish wine was clearly less developed than the London bottle, and less developed than the wine in our own cellar for that matter. On the local scene, I have seen two-3 year old Sauvignons taken from purpose-built cellars less than 1 km apart and found to be so different when tasted side by side that one of the owners was persuaded to take immediate and considerable steps to improve his cellar conditions.
I am quite passionate about Alsace wines and have collected a variety of these over many years. It is probably a reflection on their national temperament that the producers seem to want to fit as much wine as possible into each bottle. With some you can find the gap between the cork and the top of the wine at 5mm or even less. Bearing in mind that the level of the wine will increase about 5mm for every 10ºC in temperature, seeping corks within these batches seem to be inevitable. Such seepers will also be prone to oxidation and have dulled fruit characters as a consequence. Importers from other regions and countries are less prone to this problem, but it still does happen.
Our notes on cellaring wines go some way toward explaining some of the above pitfalls in shipping and cellaring wines, and varieties which are likely to suffer most. But this is not all that has to be considered…
We have undertaken trials on the effect of mechanical action on wines and in particular on Pinot noir. Wine filtered through an inert filter disc of 0.45 microns (fine enough to filter bacteria) undergoes an immediate change in texture and in perceived fruit. This is not necessarily a bad change, but it is nevertheless distinct. Group tastings which have compared wines which have travelled for approximately 4 hours in a car with others that made the same trip 2 weeks previously showed there was a distinct difference between the two lots. Many tasters did not even think they were the same wine. The observation made was that the recently travelled wine seemed to be more obviously tannic by virtue of a depressed fruit character. Wines do seem to recover from this over a month or so, and I suspect recovery is aided if they are stored cool or cold.
Following bottling, most wines taste quite well for a week or so and then appear to go into a decline for some time (from 1-6 months depending on the variety and how it was bottle). I attribute this to a small amount of oxygen absorbed during the process, resulting in swings in redox potential until equilibrium is regained.
Conclusions and cautionary comments can be drawn from the above anecdotes…
* When buying imported wine in particular, check the ullage is adequate. If it is not, check for seepers immediately on purchase. If buying direct from the importer, inquire about the conditions of shipping: possible adverse effects would be greatest with temperature-sensitive varieties such as Pinot noir and Gewurztraminer and least with others such as Sauvignon and Riesling.
* If purchasing at auction, inquire about the cellar it came from. With older wines or sensitive varieties, I would be less inclined to buy from Auckland cellars unless they have temperature control. I would tend to take more interest in the contents of Wellington cellars, which are mostly very good. (there has to be some compelling reason to live in Wellington.)
* On receiving a wine, allow it to rest for a time which is proportionate to the time spent travelling (Anything from 1- 6 months in a cool cellar).