The secret to ageing gracefully
'I guess it's not bad,' says a Hong Kong resident, reflecting on the fact that nine of the 12 vintage bottles he took to the travelling Penfolds Recorking Clinic at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in November were in good condition. 'I collect wines to drink them, not for reselling; two of the three that weren't certified tasted like I'd still enjoy them.'
These dozen bottles were a fraction of the 210 brought to be evaluated and better preserved by a team of experts from Penfolds winery in South Australia. Hosted by its chief winemaker, Peter Gago, the collective offers a free evaluation of all Penfolds labels older than 15 years. Up to 15ml is removed for analysis - noting colour, bouquet and palate; if up to par, it is topped up with the most recent vintage of the same wine variety, a new cork is placed, and the owner receives a certification bottle sticker peppered with security features. The bottle's authenticity is logged in a database.
This was the clinic's second time in Hong Kong, following its debut four years ago. The roadshow started 20 years ago, visiting cities and building up to annual events in Australia and less frequent visits to Europe, Asia and the United States.
Also in November, a premium wine tasting and dinner took place at Cepage. Some guests flew in from Europe, the US and the mainland to try old vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, South Africa, Spain and Portugal. One of the stars was a Chateau Lafleur 1947.
But with old vintages, how does one know bottle provenance is reliable? And can well-kept wines be 'bruised' when transported? 'Arranging dinners with old wines is a demanding and difficult task,' says organiser Rene Dehn, co-owner of Fine magazines. 'You can never be 100 per cent sure, tracking bottles that are more than 50 years old with information that needs to be checked, double-checked and checked again. All bottles for that dinner came from very trusted wine merchants or direct from wineries.
'From the morning, we decanted and tested wines to ensure no faulty bottles were served. Luckily, only one was corked, an excellent result considering the age of some of these bottles. Old wines can only be verified by people who have tasted them before and have a reference [point]. A few experts in old and rare wine were attending from Italy, Switzerland and the UK. Highlights of approved bottles were Chateau Suduierat 1928 and Chateau de Rayne, Creme de Tete 1929.
'One of the best consecutive vintages ever in Bordeaux was 1928 and 1929, and these wines were both still very vibrant and alive.'
Dehn adds that the Clos de Vougeot 1911 was still young and fruity. Champagne Cristal 1988, Domaine Romanee Conti 1966, Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978, Chateau Petrus 1945, Chateau Lafite 1953, were also poured as well as a 1970 Taylor Vintage Port.
Dehn says old wines should be sent several weeks in advance to allow them to settle. 'You also have to ensure the wines are at a constant temperature, and we use specially designed flight cases which stabilise the wines and stop movement while being transported,' he says.
Gago and Dehn have some pointers for Hong Kong wine collectors.
First, avoid extreme temperature and humidity. These should range between 13 and 15 degrees Celsius, and 75 to 80 per cent, says Gago. 'Overheated wine has a toasted tone with a specific character, similar to sherry,' explains Dehn. 'If it is a recent problem, it will be minimised with decanting and exposure to air.'
Gago says too many people decant too early. 'Many old wines are fine with less than an hour,' he says. Other must-dos include keeping wine in the dark and avoiding any background odour or vibrations; traffic vibration would not cause significant damage in urban Hong Kong wine shops, as bottle turnover is quite rapid.
Dehn warns of corks that leak: 'It can mean the wine has suffered from air exposure and turned into vinegar. Often, leaking is minimal and the wine survives.
'Mousy taint is another thing to watch out for - a wine affected by acetyltetrahydropyridine. It gives the wine a smell of mouse urine or jasmine rice, often accompanied by a strong metallic bitterness,' he says, adding that poorly stored bottles can also result in wines that are bitter or taste of burnt wood, or have lost their fruit flavour.
Older wines, obviously, might have suffered more from movement and climatic exposure. But relatively young ones are also prone to spoiling from the most common fault: being corked - that is, acquiring a musty taint from a cork infected with a fungus that produces the chemical richloroanisole. Although wines with a high sugar content, such as Sauternes, are perfect for ageing, Dehn says the best are 'the robust reds' - the Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhones from France, and their counterparts, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah, from the New World; sturdy Italian reds; and the rich, strong dessert wines such as port and the fine late-harvest Rieslings from Germany.
'Storage for a sparkling wine is more tricky due to the pressure in the bottle,' Dehn says. 'Hand-carry them or only move them by car and not too much air travel.'
Although Dehn says he may recork bottles if a stopper shows deterioration, he prefers to buy non-recorked ones. 'It changes wine a little when done, especially in older days, when chateaux topped up wines after recorking,' he says. 'I do not personally know how often this is done in the Asian market.'
After all this, Gago says he is disappointed to hear old wine is frequently sold on for a profit rather than enjoyed, or kept until it is past its prime. 'I hear too often that owners are waiting for the right moment to drink a special bottle,' he says. 'Make sure you find out when your wine will be past its best, and don't wait for others to be drinking your wine at your wake.'