A few weeks ago, in the wake of a controversial post and a contentious comment thread on cork, reader Jay posed the following conundrum:
- We have some very old Port[o] that still has a few years left before it meets the 21-22 year optimum time frame. What is your opinion on removing the corks and replacing them with synthetic ones? My biggest fear is that the corks are deteriorating and ruining the port.
It's not uncommon to recork mature red wines to ensure that the corks do not dry out or otherwise deteriorate.
Another issue is ullage (from the old French ouillage, meaning filling), "the amount of wine or other liquor by which a cask or bottle falls short of being quite full" according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As wine ages over many years, small amounts of alcohol evaporate through the porous cork as the wine gently oxygenates. As a result, the level or "shoulder" (in wine parlance) goes down. The space created by a low shoulder can result in unwanted oxidation of the wine. To prevent this, winemakers and collectors will often recork the wines, topping off each bottle with a sacrificial bottle.
Say you own a case of 1961 Barolo Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno. Even if the wine has been properly cellared, there's a high likelihood that the shoulder has decreased. You sacrifice one bottle in the case to top off the others, recorking with new corks in case the stoppers show flaws.
But when it comes to Porto, it's best not to recork, said scion of the Taylor-Fladgate-Yeatman winery Robert Bower when he visited Houston last week. Even those these wines can age up to 80 years (and even beyond), "the minute you pull the cork, the wine will begin to age more rapidly," he said. "You're best off keeping the original cork" in place, even if you are concerned that they might be deteriorating. Because of Porto's high alcohol content (around 20 percent in most cases), the risks of damage are much lower because the alcohol prevents the formation of bacteria.
Robert was in town showing off his family's newly released vintage-dated Porto, bottlings of 2009 from the Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor-Fladgate estates. My preference was for the Croft, which, more than the others, achieved that balance of lightness in body and power in tannic structure. But I was impressed across the board with the wines' acidity and balance. "A lot of it has to do with the quality of the spirit that we use, in our case from Cognac," said Robert when I asked him how they achieve the balance. (Wine director Sean Beck plans to feature a flight of Robert's family's 2009 bottlings at Back Street Cafe, said Sean, and you can find the wines at Spec's and Richard's.)
And while the wines could age gracefully for 60 to 80 years, there's no reason not to open them now. Ever since the 1994 Porto debacle (when consumers were disappointed to find that that highly touted vintage wasn't ready to drink when it was released), Porto producers have been leaning toward greater balance and drinkability in the wines' youth.
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The vintage-dated 2009s aren't cheap (the Croft is the least expensive at around $85 a bottle). But I also really liked the balance of the 2005 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port, which weighs in under $25.
Stay tuned for more posts on cork and why we can't live without it. And, Jay, please don't forget to share a tasting note when you finally open your wines!