in Auckland, New Zealand, 31 July 2003
© Sue Courtney - text and photos
19 September 2003
People are arriving at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in downtown Auckland carrying rather strangely shaped bags. They're hanging on to them as if there is treasure inside and perhaps there is. For it's the occasion of the Penfolds Red Wine Recorking Clinic, being held in New Zealand for the very first time and I've been assigned a time slot to 'observe' the proceedings.
I enter the room and sense a quiet excitement. There are six white clothed tables each with a selection of current release wines from the Penfolds range at one end and a large stainless steel dish holding all sorts of cork extraction equipment, broken corks, ripped capsules and other bits and pieces at the other end.Men in white shirts and white aprons surrounded by several onlookers are working at two of the tables where bottles of Grange of various vintages are lined up. They are almost whispering, not wanting to disturb the contents of their bottles that have been maturing in cold dark cellars for many years.
On one table there's a fine collection, 18 bottles, the oldest a 1955, the youngest a 1976. The collector bought the wines years ago. They used to be cheap. The price didn't exceed NZ$20 until the 1976 release and the 1990 vintage was the first to reach a ton. The highly sought after latest release, the 1998, cost about NZ$400 on debut. But there are no young wines here. For a bottle to be eligible for the recorking clinic, it has to be at least 15 years old.
Peter Gago, the Penfolds Chief Winemaker, is presiding over the collector's treasure and although the 1955 had already been dealt with, a glass of the 1959 passes under my nose. It's a murky rusty-water colour, the look much worse than its old wine smell. A few minutes later I am offered a sample of a 1976, this wine in pristine condition with a remarkably youthful colour, smelling of liquorice and chocolate and tasting just divine.
Steve Lienert, the Penfolds Red Winemaker working on another table, is welcoming a collector who has 14 bottles of Grange from the eighties. Steve looks at the fill levels and decides just five need to be checked. He pushes them towards the technician on the other side of the table.
The technician slips a knife under the edge of the metal capsule on the bottle and it tears. He scrapes the knife towards him up the neck of the bottle and the capsule is off and into the bin. The cork is showing purple stains where the wine has travelled along the cork almost to the top. There is no leakage. "Caught in time" he comments as he cleans the neck of the bottle and the top of the cork with a damp cloth, then wipes it dry, lovingly, gently, like a mother washing and drying her baby.
He inserts one corkscrew, then another. "Security, in case the cork snaps", he says as he gently eases the cork out. A tasting-sized sample is poured and he quickly squirts a shot of nitrogen gas into the bottle to protect the contents before closing it with a T-cap synthetic cork.
It's a 1984, a vintage that was quite approachable in its youth and this sample, with its dark tawny-red colour, looks good. Steve sticks his nose in the glass and proclaims it gloriousness then takes a sip, swirls it around his mouth and spits it out. "That's really nice", he says as he hands the glass to the owner to try. He explains its going to be topped up with 1997 Grange and tends to the process. The T-cap comes out of the 1984, in goes the top-up wine, carefully, slowly, to a generous fill level then the T-cap is quickly reinserted.
The exercise is repeated with a 1985 and after tasting it Steve nods his head in approval. "That's very good as well. It seems a bit younger, tannins more obvious, a little bit tighter whereas in the '84 the tannins are just a little softer", he says, explaining it was a warmer vintage.
Next it's a 1986, a classic Grange, one of the great vintages. "That's got years and years ahead of it. Tannins are obvious, really rich, concentrated, still quite youthful. Even though it is 17 years old it looks fantastic", says Steve.
Steve says all the wines are in good condition and have obviously been cellared well so I ask the owner the secret of his success. "Nothing special", he says. "I keep them in clay pipes under the house on the coldest side where there is no light and no vibration". The pipes are the kind that farmers used to use in their paddocks and stacked on the clay floor, they provide natural insulation.
The topped-up bottles are taken to the recorking table where technical assistant, Pat Connors, operates a 'boutique vineyard' size hand recorking machine, brought over from Australia especially for the clinic. He adjusts the wine's fill level, gives it another squirt of nitrogen to displace any air still in the neck, then recorks the bottle. The wine gets a new capsule and a clinic label with the winemaker's signature and a number that is cross-referenced to the Penfolds clinic database for future reference and auction verification of authenticity.
In the Australian market wines that have the Penfolds recorking clinic label are generally bringing a better price in auction because the buyer knows that the wine they are buying is in good condition because otherwise it wouldn't have been certified in the first place.
Not every wine passes the clinic test however. A little later I see a badly ullaged 1970 rejected. The owner will drink it that evening or make some Grange marinade.
The Penfolds Red Wine Recorking Clinic is coming to the USA for the first time in October 2003 with clinics in New York on Friday, Oct. 24 and in Chicago on Wednesday, Oct. 29. All Penfolds red wines are eligible, so long as they are vintage 1988 or older. This is a process that Penfolds calls 'the ultimate in after-sales service' and it's free. Registrations close Oct. 10. For further information contact Penfolds' U.S. office at recorkingUSA@penfolds.com.
Part 2 follows - An Interview with Peter Gago.
© Sue Courtney, Sept. 19, 2003
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