Friday, January 20, 2012

Bad cork. Good wine.

Our friends came over for a rainy day lunch, a surprise bottle of Bordeaux in hand. Not just any Bordeaux but an older bottle, before those idiots decided to write, "Grand Vin de Bordeaux" on each and every bottle (when every bottle is "great" none of them are). This wine really was better than the average "great" Bordeaux, noted by the "Grand Cru" part on the label. So, this bottle had a much better than average chance of truly being great.

Our friends received it as a gift, a long time ago. It sat in their cellar, sleeping, for over two decades. Most wines would fade, becoming mere wraiths of their former selves, their bold red color going brownish. Some, however are up to the challenge.

They said to throw the wine away, it probably wasn't good. But they were curious. The cork was rotten. "So, it must be spoiled! Look at that cork!" they said. "Probably not worth the effort of opening it," they added.

Well, if there's one thing corks on old bottles of French wine like to do, it's disintegrate. Slowly, I managed to thread a corkscrew into the rotted plug. I pulled, carefully, slowly, coaxing out the cork, feeling it start to slide. Was the piece coming out intact? I pulled, cautiously. The cork emerged from the bottle. Success!

This was definitely a wine to decant. Two decades leave a lot of sediment, and the decanter would have allowed us to trap a lot of it in the bottle. However, decanters don't live long here. They either fall and shatter or something hits them from above, spraying shards all over the dining room.

So, pour carefully, just a taste, into a glass with lots of surface for aeration. I sipped. Everyone looked on, expectantly. I made a face. "Well," I said, how about I tell you it's horrid rotten swill and disappear into the other room to finish the bottle?". This may have been unclear, for someone actually said, "Don't drink it if it's bad!". I was just giving them an out, but in the end everyone tasted. "It's not that great, is it? Not much flavor."No, not yet. The wine's too cold. Let it warm up and breathe and try it again. It's far from being faded, it's not oxidized, and it's too bad I don't have some nice duck, venison or aged beef lying around to eat with it.

As the wine warmed, people smiled. They drank. Sipped, actually, trying to make each drop count. The wine diminished inexorably despite our best efforts to make it last. In the end, only a thin sediment paste remained in the bottom of the last glass.

Nobody regretted opening the bottle. So, if people arrive at your door with a musty, dusty bottle of something they found in the depths of their closet, cellar or basement, cork looking more like soggy paste than something that came from a tree, don't be hasty. Give it a try. It could be vinegar. It could be brown, oxidized swill. Its flavor could have slowly ebbed over the years to leave a thin fluid with little resemblance to its former self. Or it could be the start of a wonderful memory and something to talk about for years when you gather again.

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