Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's in the Bottle: 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon

by Peter Bell, winemaker

After a whirlwind couple of weeks helping to wrap up the Tierce Riesling blend, serving with Scott and Tricia as a judge at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and giving a couple of lectures at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I finally found time last night to open and enjoy a bottle of our 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon that I'd found in my cellar.

Older bottles are often a crapshoot, given that even with optimal cellaring conditions – this one didn’t even have that – a long storage interval means there’s an increased likelihood that the wine will be oxidized or compromised in some other way.

What’s an oxidized red wine smell like? As I said in a previous post, it’s never or almost never vinegar. That’s a bit of an urban myth. Instead, the gradual ingress of oxygen into the wine will cause it to smell vaguely of Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, or bruised apples. Its color might have become tinged with brown, a result of oxygen having had its way with the anthocyanin pigments in the wine.

I wouldn’t even be writing about this 2001 Cabernet if it had been suffering from any of that; but nevertheless, things didn’t start off too promising. The cork was dry and crumbly, and broke in half when I tried to pull it out. The remaining half had almost glued itself onto the inside of the bottle neck, and would not respond to any polite requests to give it up. That’s rarely a good sign, but it was way too late to return my bottle to the manufacturer (oops, that’s me).

The best recourse in cases like this is to push the remnants of the cork into the bottle, so I put the it in the sink, found a wooden spoon, and used its non-business end to do just that, as gently and slowly as I could manage. (Wrapping the whole thing in a dish towel is a safer way to accomplish this trick, given the strong likelihood of creating a red wine fountain if the cork yields too suddenly.)

You live long enough, and simple acts like trying to open a bottle of wine in a non-conventional way start triggering little Proustian events. Standing at the kitchen sink, I was suddenly brought back to the summer of 1974. A bunch us of were camping in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. I’d brought along a 1-liter bottle of Szekszárdi Bikavér, the cheap Hungarian red we liked to knock back at the time, but had somehow managed to leave my Swiss Army knife at home…

As the Dutch Oven bubbled away on the camp fire and the sun started to set, we stood there staring at this, our only bottle of wine. Without a corkscrew, we were left without a clear idea of how to gain access to the liquid inside.

Finally my friend Chris said, “Okay. You hold the bottle flat on a rock, and I’ll take a shovel and bring the blade down on the neck.”

“Are you crazy? That’ll never work!” I answered.

“Don’t be so negative all the time!” my sister Rebecca scolded. “It’ll just snap the neck off, and then we can pour the wine out from the top of the bottle. Everyone, have your cups ready.”

I held the bottle tight, the blade came down, and the entire bottle was instantly reduced to shards. Chris's vision of a clean French-revolution-style guillotine manoeuvre had been sorely misplaced.

Wiping the glass fragments and wine off my hands, I ventured,“I’m trying hard not to say ‘I told you so.' But more importantly, what are we gonna do for something to drink?”

We managed to find a couple of bottles of warm beer in the trunk of the car, but they were consumed without pleasure.

End of reminiscence. Many years passed before I realized that if only we’d found a Bic pen, we could have used the blunt end to push the cork in, much as I did last night using a wooden spoon handle. Oh well...then I guess I wouldn’t have had much of a story to tell here. 

Chris and I are still in touch from time to time, and we have enough of a shared history that this episode is just one of many that we could get together and laugh about. Only I imagine he’d say, “No, that was YOU who thought we could open it with a shovel!”

Memories are always selective, and subject to intense revisionism.

Back to last night. I had a reasonably handsome bottle of decade-old wine to have a taste of. I found my fine-mesh stainless steel tea strainer to snatch the bits of cork that were floating in the wine, and the liquid that came spilling down into my glass was an admirably deep red drink with no overt signs of creeping decrepitude. Nice! It always helps to have a backup bottle in these cases, and of course I did; but there was no need to open it.

Older red wines are not to everyone’s taste, and I confess to having trouble enjoying really old ones, no matter how profound their provenance. They often smell and taste of leather, tea, mushrooms and other things that are more easily enjoyed in another context, like maybe a leather armchair, a cup of tea and some nice mushroom soup. Their fruit flavors have long since disappeared, which always strikes me as a shame, since winemakers go to great extremes to get what? into our wine? Fruit flavors!

Fruit was still resolutely in charge of this 2001 Cabernet – plum, blackberry jam and cassis and I was also getting scents of fresh-turned earth, cola and a bit of marjoram. It didn’t go particularly well with my thrown-together weeknight meal of wilted spinach, goat cheese and toasted pecans on linguine, but we got through it.

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