Caught in the act: me snapping the documentary cameraman from National Geographic photographing my three bottles of Grange just before we go into the recorking clinic (photograph by Helen Taylor)
Genial, intelligent, amusing: everyone warms to Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker (left), so you wouldn’t think that taking three bottles of wine for him to look at would be nerve-racking. Nerve-racking? It was agonising. First there was a 40-minute journey on public transport to Haberdashers’ Hall in London, carrying the bubble-wrapped bottles in my computer bag (below). Then there was an interview with National Geographic for a documentary on Penfolds (a piece of cake in comparison with the rest of the afternoon), then a wait while Peter finished checking bottles brought in by Mimi Avery, daughter of the pioneer importer of Australian wines, the late John Avery MW. It was like waiting outside the head teacher’s study. Finally, it was my turn: I was presenting my three bottles to the head of Penfolds’ London recorking clinic 2016.
Penfolds has been holding such clinics since 1991. It’s an opportunity for people around the world with Penfolds wines at least 15 years old to have them inspected, assessed and, if necessary, recorked to arrest any deterioration caused by old, failing corks. It’s also an opportunity, if that’s the word, for a bottle to be inspected, tasted and recorked… but refused certification. In that case it gets a plain cork and, instead of the certification label signed by Peter Gago, it gets a small white spot sticker.
Non-certification doesn’t mean the wine isn’t what it purports to be. Occasionally that has happened, but the main reason is that it’s not in the condition is should be. So it comes with the advice to drink it soon. You might think it sounds a disaster, but people are often quite pleased to get the white sticker because it means they can drink a wine so treasured and/or so valuable that they’ve been scared to open it.
There’s one other scenario: Gago and his team put two white spots on a bottle. It might as well be a skull and cross bones. It means Peter Gago has pronounced it undrinkable. It has never been welcome news to anyone, but, yes, it happens. Ask Mimi Avery.
The three bottles I turned up with (left) were Penfolds’ top wine, Grange, a wine so legendary that the South Australian government has designated it a Heritage Icon. The vintages were 1980 (two bottles) and a 1983, the oldest of a handful of bottles of Grange that I have – and one less than last Christmas when we drank a 1982 with the goose. It was magnificent (the goose wasn’t bad either). To replace the three bottles would cost me around £1,120. I hardly need spell out that there’s no possibility of my doing that.
Using a specially designed template (below), Peter checked the wine level (ullage) in each bottle. He thought one of the 1980s looked OK, but the other 1980 and the 1983 were borderline low, so he suggested opening and checking them. As it turned out, both wines were in fine nick (phew!), but the cork of the 1980 was completely saturated. It could have started leaking at any time.
There was only one thing to do, check the bottle with a healthy wine level that we’d put to one side. The foil was removed and there was what we didn’t want to see: a cork that had already leaked. So foil and failing 35-year-old cork were removed (not a job for a novice) and Peter poured a tasting sample. Giving the glass a good swirl to introduce some clean air, he smelt the wine. Not promising. He tasted it and passed it to me. Musty. I immediately assumed the wine was corked (i.e. tainted with TCA, aka trichloroanisole), but Peter said not. There was some oxidation and mustiness and it certainly wasn’t 1980 Grange as it should be, but it was drinkable. So it didn’t end up with the equivalent of a skull and crossbones on it, but it wasn’t certified: it got the unbranded cork treatment, a small white sticker and advice to drink it soon. It’s standing up waiting for a day very soon (bottom right below).
The other two bottles, meanwhile, were topped up with young Grange, recorked with a branded cork and wrapped in Grange tissue paper. They’re lying down in the cellar again. Verdict? I’m very happy: one bottle to drink now, two bottles (below) to take my time over.
Photograph credits: lead photo by Helen Taylor of Penfolds; all others except the ullage template by Joanna Simon