The unpredictability of cork

Researchers have been quoted as saying a screwcap does the same job as the best cork. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cork is a good friend but a very bad – and unpredictable – enemy. You never know if it’s going to kiss you or punch you on the nose.

Following is a salutary lesson on the massive variability of cork. All those who work in the wine business know it’s the reality – despite the tireless propaganda peddled by the cork industry.

The problem is, the variability of cork is vast, and the perfect cork is rare.

Last night I drank a truly great chardonnay, which was served blind to a group of wine nuts (the Brown Paper Bag Club). Many guessed it was from Burgundy. It was Penfolds Reserve Bin 00A Chardonnay, 2000 vintage.

It was sealed by cork – apparently that rare thing, a perfect cork, because the wine was in pristine condition at the age of 18. And I don’t mean it was in suspended animation, as some screwcap critics talk about: it showed an ideal degree of development for its age.

The wine was transcendental, and more than a few around the table were shocked at how good an Aussie chardonnay from that era could be.

I looked it up on The Real Review, and found to my horror that I’d tasted two bottles of this wine in 2012, six years ago, and both had been well past their best. Further digging revealed these bottles were tasted in Adelaide at Penfolds, during the tastings for a revision of the Penfolds cellaring book, The Rewards of Patience. They’d come from Penfolds’ cellars, not exactly grabbed off a sun-baked shelf in some outback pub.

Since 2004, all Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay has been screw-capped. Researchers have been quoted as saying a screwcap does the same job as the best cork. The problem is, the variability of cork is vast, and the perfect cork is rare.

Here are my tasting notes.

Tasted in August 2012

Deep golden-amber colour. Very mature, a bit past its best, with some cumquat marmalade, oxidative, maderised characters creeping in. Lean and dry in the mouth; mellow and old now. Caramel, vanilla, butterscotch. Still a pleasant drink, though. Drink up soon. Second bottle: very similar to the first. (85 points)

Tasted October 2018

Medium-full, bright yellow colour; the bouquet wonderfully complex and in pristine condition – fresh and clean but also highly detailed and showing appropriate maturity. Beeswax, pear, white-peach, nut and nougat aromas. Traces of vanilla, malt and roasted hazelnut. Voluminous flavour with tight, compact structure and great elegance, the finish very long, seamless and harmonious. A great chardonnay in prime condition. (98 points)

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