Food & Drink Wine

A Requiem for Doomed Bottles

By Noah May

Sep 26, 2023

A Requiem for Doomed Bottles

I think most can appreciate the magic of tasting great bottles of wine. The anticipatory hush as corks are pulled and wine is cautiously poured. The sense of possibility, as haunting aromatics rise from the glass. Finally on tasting, we’re overwhelmed by the humbling notion that we’re consuming history itself. Drinking the product of grapes ripened by long-set summer suns.

Now, bear with me because I don’t want to be a downer, but today we’re not talking about these gilded moments. Oh no, we’re going to talk about the eerie Gothic doubles of the great bottles. We’re talking about the wrong ‘uns…when hope falls apart.

The old, but regularly dragged-out adage in the world of wine is that there are “no great wines, only great bottles”. I’d speculate that nothing could be truer, as I’m sure that anyone who’s tasted a savagely corked bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy can attest to. So let’s look at a few of the most tragic cases.

The Corked Wine

As alluded to above, the corked wine is, in my mind, the most disastrous of all wine calamities. It just seems so wrong. This deleterious ailment is really without culprit, other than the brutish chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).

Cork taint in wine has nothing to do with broken corks floating in your glass, nor how the wine has been stored. It is the result of a very pedestrian chemical reaction: natural fungi reacting badly with chlorinated compounds used in the treatment of corks and barrels. These days, incidents of cork taint are thankfully getting rarer. Many producers are using higher quality products which are TCA-free, but in the promising, post-war years of wine production, when many of the legends were born, some estimates say up to 20% of wine suffered with some degree of cork taint.

I’ve faced many distressingly corked bottles, but none more so than when a dear friend generously brought a bottle of the legendary Coche-Dury, Corton Charlemagne 1997 to dinner. On opening, pouring, and lifting our glasses to experience this memorable moment in unison, there were furtive - moving to aghast - glances around the room. What should have been a symphony of explosive yellow fruits, white flowers, citrus and smoke, was instead redolent of an unwashed wet dog, wrapped in last week’s musty chip-shop newspapers.  

The Knackered Wine

Wikipedia states - A knacker, knackerman or knacker man is a person who removes and clears animal carcasses from private farms or public highways and renders the collected carcasses into by-products such as fats, tallow, glue…

The above seems like a fitting segue into a treatise on wines which could only be described as carcasses of what should have been. This category covers those wines which, while not corked, have suffered due to a deficient cork. There are myriad issues which might cause a cork to fail in its only task of protecting what’s inside the bottle and allowing it to go on the evolutionary journey it was born to enjoy.

Much like Gollum, corks like sitting in the dark, cool, corners of the world. They don’t like: the heat, the cold, too much humidity, too little humidity, movement, noise…the list goes on. Corks can be capricious little devils. There are reasonable arguments as to why they should probably be phased out. The number of wines I have opened that should have been transcendent, but in fact ran the gamut from subtly “advanced” or “tired” through to cooked, dried out, cloudy, soupy, and then on to brown, vinegary and redolent of death, is heart-breaking.    

The Prem-Ox (Burgundy) Wine

Premature oxidation in white Burgundy…where to begin. From Oslo to Osaka, Brooklyn to Beijing and at every wine lovers’ table in-between, I’d wager it’s a topic that comes up weekly. Stories of lost bottles of tea-brown Montrachet, Meursault Perrières bitterly dumped into the fish stew, and raging arguments with certain producers over cellars of worthless Grands Crus – vinous misery abounds.

I’ll try not to bore you with too many more details, anecdotes or theories. Wiser, and more informed commentators have written Ulysses-length notes on the why, the who and how of this problem. Nobody really knows why it happened, but many of the great white Burgundies that were produced between 1996 and 2009 (some would argue that the problem is ongoing), were blighted with the condition of ageing at a much-accelerated rate. Wines that should have poured crystalline and youthful tasted more like sherry and, in some instances, Madeira.

Some blame excessive batonnage or stirring of the lees, others cite the decreasing quality of corks. Perhaps vignerons were too vigorous in their handling of the grapes, or too restrained in their use of sulphur dioxide to stabilise the wines. Nobody really knows, but what is clear is that a hell of a lot of theoretically great wine has been poured down sinks across the globe. My advice would be to buy very old or very young, or go for something more reliable like Mosel Riesling or Bordeaux Blanc.  

The lesser evils…

“Brett”, or in full, Brettanomyces is a type of yeast which can develop in some wines, particularly those from wineries which eschew modern technique. Now, in small doses, a little “Brett” can add a certain rustic nuance to a wine. Anyone who’s tasted an old bottle of Chateau de Beaucastel, or certain Cornas from the 1970s or 1980s might have enjoyed the unique complexity that it can offer, but if it comes in excess, the wines can be reminiscent of horse stables in the heat of August.   

Volatile acidity is another fault where the devil is in the detail. Volatile acidity comes from aromatic  acids in the wine, the primary one being acetic acid, which we know best as vinegar. At low levels, volatile acidity (VA), can be attractive. Old Chateau Musar, the great wine of the Lebanon is noted for benefitting from this high-toned or lifted acidity, as do some old Barolo. These are some of the great, old-fashioned wines of the world. When volatile acidity is seen in excess though, the results can be dispiriting…the singular scent of spilled nail varnish comes to mind.

We could go on to the much (heatedly) debated, mercurial world of natural wines, but I think perhaps leave that for another column…

In conclusion, it’s worth noting that there’s an argument that this jeopardy is all part of game. That if one is to subscribe to a joyful life guzzling great wines you have to take some of the rough with the smooth. These low moments, these disappointments, only make the highs of finding that perfect bottle more satisfying. I think this is probably the way to approach the issue, but with caveats: buy from producers, merchants or auction houses you trust. Do your research, and honour the wise doctrine that careful storage is the north star that we all must follow. If the risks are too alarming…there’s always a martini to be found!

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