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A question of wine tampering

Excuse me if I haven’t road-tested the Coravin gadget yet. I haven’t felt the need to shell out US$299 for a piece of kit that may or may not work, which is probably only of interest to mega-wealthy collectors with cellars full of fancy ‘collectable’ wine who want to be able to have a sip of it whenever they feel like it. 

I was prompted to write about this because the London auction house Bonhams has flagged a pre-auction tasting of some ‘collectable’ wines, sampled by Coravin. Presumably Bonhams won’t be trying to flog the sampled bottles afterwards.

Various ‘experts’ have heralded the Coravin as the most game-changing wine invention of recent times. I’ve read the testimonials on the Coravin web-site which are nearly all glowing. But something sends a shiver up my spine whenever I think of the idea of inserting a needle through a cork and stealing a sample of wine, then putting the bottle back in the cellar and treating it as though it’s an untampered bottle. Because tampering is what this process seems to be.

If you can take a glass or three out of your treasured bottle of ’45 Mouton, it’s not beyond the realm of imagining that you could squirt some Jacob’s Creek back through the same needle to make this bottle of wine seem virginal. Maybe the present Coravin isn’t able to do this, but it surely isn’t far off.

The Coravin, just to fill in some background, replaces the wine you remove with argon gas. Argon has been in use for quite a few years in those wine preservation systems you see in restaurants. Argon supersedes the gases previously used for this purpose, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, because it’s heavier – it sits more heavily on the wine’s surface to shield it from destructive atmospheric oxygen. With Coravin, no oxygen gets into the bottle in the first place, so the argon’s job is easier.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like the idea of leaving space inside a bottle of wine, irrespective of what occupies that space. My feeling (possibly totally unscientific) is that when you have a liquid and a space, the liquid will lose aromatics to the space, no matter whether the space is a vacuum or is occupied by gas.

The Coravin is described by its inventor as a ‘wine access system’, and it can be used as a short-term preservation system as above, or as part of long-term cellaring. I’ve read people who claim to have sampled the same bottle of wine over a period of years and the last sample was as good as the first. I find that hard to believe.

The few complaints on the website feedback page revolve around the cost of the unit, the slowness of pouring, the speed with which gas canisters run out and the cost of replacing them.

Bonhams auction press release is headed ‘Try Before You Buy at Bonhams April Fine Wine Sale’. In the lead-up to the sale, four recent vintages of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild are being offered for tasting in Bonhams’ restaurant – 2003, ’04, ’07 and ’08 at £25 a glass.

It reads: “This is possible because the Coravin wine access system used in the restaurant keeps the wine in perfect condition day to day. The bar also offers a light lunch menu…” etc. etc.

Bonhams is using the Coravin simply as a short-term preserver, which seems fair, but the idea of syringing an occasional fix of, say, 1988 Romanée-Conti (also in the sale at £90,000–110,000) seems like desecration to me.
www.bonhams.com , www.coravin.com.

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