First review in on Vino DeCanto wine preserver

I attended the Newcastle Food and Wine show several weeks ago, and was intrigued and bought one of the very first Vino DeCanto wine preservers ever sold.  Up until now, I have used a manual air extraction pump to preserve an open bottle of good wine for several days, but it certainly does not preserve wine for several weeks or longer.  Vino DeCanto claims they have stored wine in the preserver for up to 14 months!.

I have been exploring buying an expensive four-bottle argon replacement system to keep up to four bottles of wine open for longer periods of time and have also been reviewing the use of WineSave and CoravinWineSave is an argon replacement unit which is good for about 50 applications.  Coravin is unique in that it sticks a fine needle through the cork of a bottle, extracts the amount required and then replaces the wine with argon gas.  The Vino DeCanto operates differently in that it does not replace the empty space with argon (or similar) gas, but rather eliminates the space all together by using a plunger with an O-ring sealer to keep the remaining wine away from air.

Wine PReserver Decanter by VinoDeCanto

Now that I have used it several times, I feel comfortable providing a review of my findings.

The positives:

  • The Vino DeCanto does the job as advertised and preserves the wine.  I had approximately a half-bottle of 1998 Lindeman’s St. George Cabernet Sauvignon (a most outstanding wine BTW!) in the Vino DeCanto for 14 days and it tasted as fresh as when I opened the bottle.  It had not lost fruit, had not turned brown nor in any other manner look or taste different than when I opened it.  The Vino DeCanto does the job!
  • You do not need to continue to buy argon capsules to fill wine bottles; therefore your initial investment in the Vino DeCanto is your entire investment.
  • The Vino DeCanto is beautifully engineered, of very high quality and quite attractive to look at.

The negatives:

  • The Vino DeCanto preserver is heavy and somewhat cumbersome to move around.
  • You can only use it for one bottle at a time, whereas WineSave or Coravin can be used on multiple bottles you have opened.  Therefore, if you want to keep several bottles open at a time, you need to purchase several Vino DeCantos.
  • It is operationally difficult to use without squirting wine out of the top or dripping from the spout.  Even after several uses and being careful about what I was doing, I still had a small mess to clean up each time I have used it.
  • The height of the Vino DeCanto is less than the height of a typical red wine glass, so you either need to mount the device on a stand or hold the glass at an angle underneath the spout.
  • It is difficult to judge how long to push the plunger for as the wine trails for a while after you stop pushing the plunger, so it is easy to overfill the glass

I purchased my Vino DeCanto for Aus $229 at the show price.  It is expected to retail for around $300.  WineSave costs about $35 and is good for approximately 50 applications before you need to buy another one.  Coravin costs about $300 and the replacement capsules cost around $10 (more or less based on how many you) buy and are good for around 15 uses per capsule.  Both WineSave and Coravin can be used on as many bottles as you have opened.  I have not used the Coravin myself, but several friends, including some of Sydney’s top sommeliers have and swear by it.

Given the price, limitation of only being able to use it on one bottle at a time, and the operational challenges I encountered with the Vino DeCanto, I am unlikely to buy another one unless I can be convinced it is easier to use than I have found it.  I may be looking at the Coravin as my ongoing solution to preserving fine wines.

Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, available now!
© 2014.  Steve Shipley. All rights reserved.
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Wine financials – you do the math!

In my last blog post, I talk about the mark-ups that restaurants place on wine.  I do not begrudge a restaurant making a profit on wine or other alcohol as it is often the difference between a restaurant succeeding or being forced to close their doors.  But the restaurant needs to fair and competitive.  Most restauranteurs tell me a typical wine list price should be about 220% – 250% the price of what you can buy the bottle for retail.  And I am comfortable with this.  But as I mentioned, I will not frequent restaurants that charge over 350% of the typical retail price per bottle.

Wine Math

Here are a few other tips on wine financials and what to pay for wine and how to use wine with the right financial outcomes.

Buying very expensive wine

In general don’t!  During my life, I expect that I have purchased over 5,000 bottles of wine.  I have never paid more than $1,000 per bottle.  In fact, only twice have I paid between $500 – $1,000 per bottle and that was for (1) a 1971 Penfolds Grange, and (2) a full bottle of a 1971 Chateau D’Yquem – both birth year wines for my wife’s 40th birthday party.

I have spent over $200 per bottle about 40 times, including the two bottles mentioned above, another 8 or so Grange, a dozen 2005 Bordeaux’s, some excellent Montrachets, and a few special bottles of Napa Valley wines.  And every other bottle of wine I have purchased has been less than $100.  Therefore, I have spent more than $100 per bottle for less than 1% of the wine I have purchased.

There are excellent bottles of wine well under $50 per bottle.  I have had some truly outstanding wines for $10 – $20 per bottle.  And most people cannot tell the difference or in fact, actually like more the cheaper wines because they are more open and ready to drink, and the taste is something they are more used to.  Be hesitant to spend over $30 – $40 per bottle unless you really know your wines.

Doing BYO (Bring Your Own)

I love BYO and you save a fortune!  I have often brought great wine for a special occasion in a restaurant and saved thousands of dollars.  Plus I can pick out exactly what wines I want from my cellar.  For some of my birthday functions I have brought between $500 – $800 worth of wine and buying the equivalent wine in the restaurant would have cost me $2,500 – $3,500.  That is a great savings!

Expect to pay up to $25 per bottle or $25 per head for corkage.  While this may add $150 to the cost of the meal, it is still far cheaper than spending $3,000 for the wine!  The corkage fee is very reasonable and includes them decanting the wine, pouring it for you, replacing and using their best glassware, and clearing and cleaning the glassware.  I usually also bring a nice bottle along to gift the sommelier or owner also to let them know I appreciate being able to BYO.

Many restaurants, including Tetsuya’s allow you to do this.  Or just ask and many restaurants will be glad to provide this service for you even if it is not listed as a service.  BYO means a bill for a great night out that would be half of what it otherwise would be and most restaurants are glad to just have your food business.

Buy aged wine instead of current vintages

There is a glut of wine on the market – more people are selling than buying.  Therefore, aged (and ready to drink) wines can be had for about the same cost as current vintages.  Why spend $500 for a bottle of current vintage Grange when you can get the 1981 or the 1985 for the same price or just a little more.  You would need to cellar the 2007 Grange for at least 20 years, while you could drink the 1981 or 1985 immediately!

Cellaring a bottle of wine usually cost between $2 – $3 annually.  Therefore, if you need to cellar a bottle for ten years, it will cost you $20 – $30 per bottle in addition to what you paid for it!  There is so much aged wine available that it does not make sense to buy a current vintage when you can get an aged and ready to drink bottle for the same amount or even cheaper than the current vintage.  Someone else has paid for the storage and care and you do not have to!  Nor do you have to wait a decade or more to drink it!

If you can get a great bottle of vintage wine for less than 25% more than the current vintage, you are getting a steal.

Cooking with wine

My wife makes a great beef stroganoff.  She also makes great risotto and a few other dishes that require 100 ml of white wine.  With the beef stroganoff, we often have an aged Chadonnay like a Montrachet.  A year ago, we had the bottle open and were enjoying a glass of $150 Montrachet while cooking, and indiscriminately used 100 ml of the Montrachet as part of our beef stroganoff recipe.  It was decadent and delicious, but certainly did not materially make the beef stroganoff any better.  It also meant I had one less small glass of a great wine to drink!  It also added $20 to the cost of our tray of beef stroganoff!

When we made beef stroganoff last weekend, we drank the same bottle of wine, but I opened a bottle of 2005 Kelman Semillon to be used for cooking.  This is a nice wine which I got for free as a land-owner in their cooperative vineyard.  The bottle is worth $18 at the cellar door, and therefore only added about $2.40 to the cost of the beef stroganoff.

An open bottle of wine will only last a few days for drinking purposes, but will last several weeks if you are using it for cooking.  Therefore, we try to make several meals over a few weeks which require wine as part of the recipe and open a cheaper bottle of wine for the cooking.  And the 2005 Kelman Semillon is a very good wine for the money and I am now enjoying a glass while writing this blog!  Using an $18 bottle of wine for several meals and several glasses in between is a far better approach than using 100 ml of $150 bottle of wine for cooking!

We also keep about a dozen bottles of both white and red wine we know is no longer good for drinking but can still be used as a marinate or for cooking as need be.  The last few batches of Coq au vin we made used a 1989 Lindemans St George Cabernet Sauvignon for marinating!  While past due for drinking, it was still great as a marinate.

Hopefully this ‘wine math’ made sense and was useful and helps you get far better drinking mileage out of your wine buying and consumption.  Enjoy!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Why does the screw top controversy rage on?

I have evolved my views on this over the last decade, and must say that I am in very strong favor of using screwtops.  Almost everyone else in the industry globally is also.  Yet, there are a few hold-outs, including the Chinese (who seem to value the cork tradition more at this point in time).  However, I believe that a few influential Chinese ‘wine thought leaders’ will come around quickly to the use of screw tops and then the rest of the nation will follow.

Fortunately the Australia wine industry is almost entirely converted to the use of screw top and recently awarded the 2012 McWilliams Maurice O’Shea Award to the ‘Australian Screwcap Initiative.’  (My use of ‘screw top’ and their use of ‘screwcap’ is interchangeable.)  Usually this prestigious award goes to a great wine, but occasionally it goes to a theme or initiative and awarding it to the use of screw tops was a very bold step by the Australian wine industry which clearly announces the use of screw tops is clearly the future.

Almost simultaneously, the Italian wine authorities have approved the use of screw tops and other synthetic sealers to be used for their higher quality DOC and DOCG wines for the first time.  Even the Europeans are starting to come around!

The science and evidence around the use of a slightly porous cork allowing a good to great wine to reach its full potential is just not there.  Quite conclusively, the marginal potential differences are extremely minor or likely non-existent.  Screw tops provide the same path to maturity and complexity that corks do as what has been bottled inside the seal is sufficient to create to most from the wine.  The quality of the grape, the wine maker and the little bit of air in the ullage is far more important than the minute amount of air that may seep in over the next 10 – 20 years.  And if that air amount is ‘more than a very little,’ the wine will oxidize and turn to vinegar.

Cork has some major issues which can make for a most unpleasant tasting experience:

  • Cork failure rates are between 3% and 15% according to a variety of studies, even with cork quality control and checking – it is just the nature of the beast
  • Sometimes an entire batch of bad corks makes it way to the market and can ruin an entire great vintage of great wine
  • The variability of the exact same wine bottle to bottle is often visible and indicates that at least one of the bottles will be an unpleasant drinking experience!
One of the two undrinkable bottles of 2002 Wolf Blass Black Label

The greatest disappointments I have had in wine drinking to open what you know is or should be a great bottle of wine, only to find it has been ‘corked.’  This has happened to me several times and pouring a $50 – $100 bottle of  wine down the drain feels like ‘wine euthanasia.’  I will try anything to save such as bottle from considering it for cooking to rationalizing that is is drinkable and I just need to reduce my finicky standards a bit!  But if I am going to share the wine others, I will not let it pass and have to move onto the next bottle – if I have a back-up bottle (which I usually do, but this is not always convenient or possible).

I hate to be disappointed, especially when it is beyond my control to have the right outcome.  It is my fault if I leave a vintage far too long and the wine has deadened, lost it fruit, or lost its structure.  I can control that and avoid that happening.  But there is nothing I can do about having received a bottle of wine with a bad cork in it.  And even with a good cork, it is difficult to get 20 years of solid performance without it becoming saturated and starting to seep.  This puts at risk most of your best bottles that require 20 years to age.  That is why every two years, Penfolds offers free re-corking of Grange and other iconic Penfolds wines as some of them require 30 years or more to be optimally drinkable.

My view is that avoiding this disappointment (a corked bottle) far outweighs what extremely small possibility that for a limited few bottles of wine, that aging under cork ‘may’ yield a slightly better result than the same bottle under screw top.  You are guaranteed that bottle after bottle will be at its best and consistent when under screw top.  The only chance of the bottle going bad is if you have scorched it from storing it in too hot a condition.

The other problem with the variability of cork, is that if you have several dozen bottles, they are likely to age differently and the chance you will be drinking each bottle at its best is diminished.  With screw top, you know they will age at the same pace and be consistently drinkable during an optimum period of time.  The need to provide a ‘back-up’ bottle is no longer necessary.

“Yes,” I certainly enjoy the experience of taking out an old cork and will miss that experience more and more over time, but enjoying that sensation does come close to masquerading the the disappointment of a ‘corked’ bottle.  Insist on buying under screw top from now on and don’t take the risk.

Seriously? A 1987 Lindemans Shiraz with pizza tonight?

I have so many topics queued up to blog about.  I love talking about (and drinking) wine.  Today I was discussing a very interesting new wine education concept with a friend and he called me wine-centric.  I kind of liked that!  And it fit in well with the wine educational concept he is promoting.  The guy I was talking with is Ben Hughes, who has a lifetime of experience in the wine industry as a seller, maker and educator.  Deanna and I have taken a wine tasting class from him previously which was great fun and very educational.  Ben is now starting his new and improved venture The Australian Wine and Beer School (AWBS).  It looks like a great way to teach a wide variety of people on Australian wine and beer.  Most importantly, it takes the mystique and intimidation out of learning about wine and makes it downright fun!

Perfect Cork

Because Ben was coming over and because I knew he would appreciate it, I opened my last bottle of the 1987 Lindemans Shiraz which I happened to come across when checking out the temperature in my Vintec.  Plus I knew I needed to drink it soon as with each passing year, it was at risk of becoming more past due.

I had taken a bottle of this to the Hunter Valley last year, but had about five winter months when it was not stored in optimal conditions.  That was a mistake for a 25 year old (and) fragile wine.  I was excited to have that bottle one day at Bistro Molines, but upon opening and decanting it, I found it was not in great condition and had to pour it down the drain – a real shame!  But the bottle I opened today to drink with Ben was much better.  The cork was perfect (except it was dry on the top and did crumble when trying to open it), and the wine much better preserved and drinkable than the bottle I took to the Hunter and was stored outside of proper cellaring conditions.

Since the cork crumbled into the bottle, I had to filter it to ensure no cork fragments made their way into the wine.  However, I was careful not to aerate it as it would have further harmed an already fragile (but still pretty good) structure. Opening any wine this old requires special care as I discussed in a previous post.  This wine was not brownish (brownish being a sure sign of too much oxidation in the bottle) and clearly lasted better than the bottle I opened last year.  While not having lively fruit flavors, it was still a remarkable wine, perfectly integrated and balanced, and your typical Hunter Shiraz.

Sharing a ‘last bottle’ bestows a great honor for all involved.  As I get down to my remaining few bottles of a particular wine and vintage, I think carefully about who I want to drink that wine with.  And knowing Ben would appreciate it and with a lifetime in the wine industry, he would enjoy this bottle of wine.  That makes it a delight to share with others.  When you have that special bottle and that last bottle, put some thought into who you want to share it with.

And notice the Temperature gauge on the bottle!  This was a birthday present from a friend after reading that I do not use a temperature gauge when checking the temperature of bottles before serving.  More on this in a future post!

And since Ben was driving, we have some wine left over to go with the pizza I am making tonight.  And I am able to share that tonight with the most important person in my life, my wife and soul mate, Deanna, writer of DAZ in the Kitchen.  This will be the most notable wine we have ever had with pizza.  Usually a Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon does the trick, but tonight it will be a 1987 Lindemans Shiraz!  The spicy, peppery flavors should match up well with the chili and garlic I load onto the pizza.  And if you want the recipe for the pizza, check out DAZ in the Kitchen blog post for our pizza recipe.

I hope the food and wine you have tonight will be as enjoyable as what we are doing!  Enjoy!

A great wine, but disappointing wine drinking experience

We spent Saturday the week past, traveling and visiting friends in the Blue Mountains and beyond.  It was a great time and we had some great meals, even though it did make for a very long day.  For once, I did not bring the wines and let it up to the hosts to provide the wine to accompany the meals.

During our Saturday lunch, we had some great food starting with three different soups samplers (tomato and carrot, pumpkin, and pea), followed by stir fired veggies and prawns, with a wonderful dessert of chocolate balls and berry ice cream.  Each course had a decent wine to go with it from a white to red to sweet dessert wine.  And as usual the best part of the meal and experience was sharing it with great friends.

We repeated the performance for dinner, but it was a heavier meal with more meat, including a marinated roast beef side, sausages, and stir fired veggies.  Therefore, more red wines were served and the two choices of red were very nice choices.  Unfortunately, the first problem was that the wines were drunk too early in their life.

The wine of the evening should have been a very nice 2007 Penfold’s St Henri.  This is an excellent wine and has a 96 (out of 100) rating.  Usually I would salivate over having a St Henri with dinner, but then we are currently drinking the 1999 vintage (I have about 6 bottle left and need to drink them in the next few years to get maximum enjoyment from them).

But I could tell from the first smell and the first sip of the 2007 that this wine was not ready for drinking!  I asked the host how many bottles he had left and he mentioned he had six left.  I told him to wait at least two more years if not up to five years before he drinks the next one.

This wine should be drunk between 2015 and 2024 for peak enjoyment and ideally in the 2019 – 2021 time frame.  While he decanted and even aerated the wine, it did not have much of an effect as the wine structure was just too tight.  And then, the wine was served in a white wine glass used for Riesling or Semillon.  This did not allow the wine to breath and forced an already tight wine into a small area to breathe and drink from making it even tighter.  There are reasons Riedel makes specific wine glasses for Shiraz and other grapes and drinking a Shiraz from a white wine glass is almost sinful!

This was a great wine, served too early and without giving it any advantage to shine.  This was a $75 – $100 bottle of wine wasted.  It still had (obviously) fresh fruit, but was too tight and the complexities of this great wine had not become fully integrated.  I hope the host takes my advice and does not serve up another bottle for several more years.  This will be a great wine over time, but certainly not at its best today when served up in a small glass.

Impact of temperature on wine taste is larger than you think! Part 2 – White Wine

In Part 1, we discussed the impact of temperature on red wines.  We will now do the same for white wines.  The effect of temperature is even more profound than it is for reds.

In general whites are stored in quite cool temperatures.  My long-term whites like my long-term reds are stored at 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit).  But then I have usually about 6 – 8 ‘ready-to-serve’ whites in my kitchen refrigerator which are stored at 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is too cold a temperature to serve most white wines.  In general, excellent white wines (Montrachets and other aged Chardonnays and Semillons) should be served at 10 – 14 degrees Celsius (50 – 57 degrees Fahrenheit) to really release their great flavors and bouquet.  Typically good white wines (Most other Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Grigios, etc.) served at 7 – 10 degrees Celsius (45 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and bad white wines as chilled as you like!

Boxed white wines and lower quality white wines are usually served very cold as they are lacking flavor anyway.  What most ‘bad’ white wine drinkers are looking for a a refreshing, cool drink and lots of alcohol!  But if you want to get the most flavor out of a white wine that it has to offer, then you should warm it up a few degrees.

In the past, I made the mistake of storing and serving my white wines too cold, especially if I took an excellent white wine directly from the fridge.  Now I tend to take the wine out of the fridge for about 15 minutes to let it rise in temperature a few degrees and become more flavorful.  This is often accomplished by putting the bottle in a carrying case to bring to a restaurant and the time it takes to get to the restaurant is perfect in terms of the wine being a few degrees warmer.  Or if I am going to serve it at home, I let it sit on the counter for 15 minutes before serving it.

For an excellent white wine, especially a great and aged Chardonnay, I now let the wine warm up to about 12 degrees or so.  (Note that I do not actually take the temperature of the wine, but rather just feel the bottle and compare the bottle to room temperature.)  A bottle such as a great Montrachet or the Penfolds Yatarnna deserve this type of treatment and you will definitely notice the improved bouquet of wine in your nose and taste of the wine on your palate.

I love taking a sip when it is still ‘too cold’ and swirling an excellent white wine around my mouth.  The body temperature of my mouth warms the wine almost immediately and over several minutes, you can pick up a variety of different tastes that keep changing over time.  It is an amazing experience and worth savoring!

Champagnes and sparkling wines are usually served even more chilled than while wines.  For low-end sparklings, you can serve them at 4 – 6 degrees Celsius, but good Champagnes should be served at a somewhat higher temperature.

While difficult to discern by other than expert tasters, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy relates the different experiences he has had with the 1996 Moet and Chandon Dom Perignon Champagne:
  • at 8°C, mineral and a little closed, perfect with an oyster tartare
  • at 9°C, moderately open, to be matched with crayfish
  • at 10°, complements wild salmon magnificently
  • at 11°, chardonnay’s butter notes appear, volume amplifies
  • at 12°, delicate mushroom aromas appear
  • at 13°, pinot noir aromas, tannins! serve with a lamb tajine
  • at 14°, smoky flavours and yoghurt aromas are revealed
  • at 16°, aromas of meringue and walnuts, amazing intensity – magical with a tarte Tatin with candied violets

Most of us could not discern such differences in flavor, but some can.  However, we can all learn from this and be appreciative of the difference a few degrees makes!  BTW, if you want to do this experiment with a bottle at each degree between 8 and 16, it will cost you about $2,400 at $300 per bottle!

You deserve the enhanced flavor of letting a great white wine warm up a few degrees towards room temperature to enhance the taste.  A number of people will take a great white wine directly out of their long-term cellar at 14 degrees Celsius (by now you should know this is 57 degrees Fahrenheit!) and serving it.

Right way – no ice

If you have removed white wine from the fridge or a Vintec where it has been stored ‘cold,’ and once it has warmed up a couple of degrees to release the flavors, you should place the white wine in wine storage container without ice (like in the photo to the left).  This ensures the wine stays at the right temperature for a long time (hopefully long enough to finish the bottle!).  If you put it in an ice bucket, it will return the wine to close to freezing, choking off the flavor.  Therefore, I never use ice in any manner with good white wine.  (Or you may consider just using a few cubes to counterbalance the room temperature.) If you are drinking bad white wine, then use all the ice you want, as you want to hide the poor flavor!

Wrong! Do not use ice!

We may not all have the discerning palate of Richard Geoffroy, but we can still greatly enhance our white wine tasting experience by making sure we are storing and serving the wine at the right temperatures.I have learned that there is great benefit in warming an excellent white wine up a few degrees before tasting it.  Do some comparison testing and see if you do not agree!

And if this all seems just too hard, then for white wine, take it out of the fridge for 20 minutes before serving it and leave it at that.  That is as good a rule of thumb as any.

The bigger the bottle, the longer the cellaring

Wines come in all size bottles.  The most standard wine bottle size is 750 ml.  The ‘half-bottle’ at 375 ml is used sparingly for table wines, but is a common size for dessert wines.  (The wine makers may be concerned that after a couple 750 ml bottles over dinner, it is good to finish with some restraint, so a smaller bottle is in order!)  The smallest size is the ‘split’ at 187.5 ml, and is known as a single serving size.  This is the size you are usually handed or asked to buy in economy class on an airline.

Then there is the impressive 1.5 liter ‘magnums.’  The sheer mass to these bottles make them an impressive sight!  For larger groups, they can prove useful to make sure everyone gets a taste.  But after that, the even larger bottle size starts to become almost ridiculous.  The 3 liter ‘double magnum’ is more suitable for large parties where you want everyone to drink the same thing with limited choice.  This may serve well at a BBQ or a wedding, for example.  But after that, I believe the size of the bottle is strictly for show.  I mean how does one lift and pour the bottle, and how does one decant the bottle?  You would require a bathtub for a 12 liter bottle!

Except for dessert wines, I almost always drink only 750 ml bottles.  They pour and decant nicely and without much drama.  The standard decanter is designed for this size bottle unless mentioned otherwise.  The main reason I like to drink 750 ml bottles is that when having a dinner or gathering of four to eight people, then I can open two to four different bottles of different wines.  This works really well in terms of matching wines to different courses of a meal, and also for comparing and sampling many different wines.  In general, I find it is always more pleasurable to share a couple of different bottles instead of focusing on only one wine in an evening.  Larger bottles such as magnums (or even larger) limit the variety for smaller groups.

I have about 15 magnums of some nice wines I plan to use for larger celebrations and when bringing some special groups of people together.  I also bought (as a really good deal for the volume!) 24 double magnums.  The double magnums represent some of Australia’s best wine from the best vintages.  Yet, every time I think about pulling one out, I usually go with other choices (such as several bottles of a comparable wine) because (1) the are easier to handle, (2) I have more choice, and (3) the larger bottles are unlikely to be ready to drink yet.

When wine ages in a bottle, the air in the head space (called ullage) mixes over time with the wine in the bottle to mature and enhance it.  Describing why and how this happens could take several posts on their own.  The important thing to know is that for larger bottles, the ratio of the volume of air in the head space to the volume of wine is drastically reduced (since each bottle is filled to the top).  Therefore, it takes a lot longer time for the wine to mature and reach optimal drinking in a larger bottle.

When a wine taster / reviewer projects the time range in which to optimally drink the wine, he/she is estimating that based on the wine being cellared in a 750 ml bottle.  The general rule of thumb (for good wines that enhance through cellaring) is that for every doubling in bottle size (from 750 ml) you should cellar the bottle for an additional three to five years.  Therefore a double magnum could take an additional six to ten years in the cellar before it is ready to drink. 

Unfortunately, there is also the risk involved that the cork or the storage conditions are sub-optimal and statistically, you may not drink the bottle at the right time for that bottle.  There is a much greater chance with larger bottles that you will either drink the wine too early or too late.

Two years ago, I opened a 750 ml bottle of the 1994 Wynn’s John Riddoch (a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon).  This is a stunning bottle of wine and drank beautifully.  We were able to share it among friends as part of a wine tasting.  Then several weeks later, I took my team out to celebrate the successful end of a major project, and over lunch and after a few earlier wines, decided to buy a magnum of the same 1994 Wynn’s John Riddoch, expecting it would be comparable.  However, it was still too tight and even after much decanting, could not compare with the same wine stored in the 750 ml bottle.  The magnum required at least five more years to be as soft and mature as the wine from the 750 ml bottle was at that point in time.

This was an expensive mistake, but I learned a lot that day.  I now take bottle size seriously in laying down the wine for the requisite number of additional years before I consider opening it.

In general, I avoid or limit the number of large bottles I have, but if you do have some, make sure to age them for a longer time.  The general rule of thumb should be to add three to five years of cellaring every time you double up the bottle size from the standard 750 ml size.

1988 Lindeman’s Verdelhao – one of the best white wines I have ever drunk

“Yes”, that’s correct – Lindemans’ spelled “Verdelhao”  that way back in 1988.  Most Verdelhos will not last more than several years in the cellar.  But somehow we got our hands on two bottles of this great wine back in 2006, and had one in 2008 which I remember as being superb.  This Verdelho was definitely built to last!

Our friends, Owen and Lucie, recently got engaged and we have been looking for a time to have a great meal together, which is far too infrequently, and our next meeting for dinner was scheduled for 1 September!  But a class they were scheduled for over the weekend was canceled and we happen to be free which provided the opportunity to get together this last weekend, and we jumped at it.

They wanted to treat us to a meal at their house because we had recently given them a bread maker we were no longer using.  Owen and Lucie are really nice people, great cooks and have a great palate for good wine.  Therefore, it is always a pleasure to share a meal and wine with them and I put ‘extra’ effort into selecting wines we can drink together.

Owen really wanted to provide the wines that evening and we were going to just bring a bottle of the 1998 Pommeray Louise Champagne as a celebration of their recent engagement.  This is one of the world’s best Champagnes and the celebration was worthy of such a fine wine.  And I was glad to have an easy time of it, by selecting a great wine to match the celebration, not the meal – that would be Owen’s job that night!

However, Owen called me in the afternoon, and informed me that we would be having a very slightly seared tuna steak with guacamole and chili (which could be added in for taste) followed by a fried lightly battered flathead fish.  He had some great reds picked out (which I will describe in another post as to how well they went with the tuna and flathead!), but wanted to start with a white for the cheese platter before the meal, and have an option of a white with the fish if we so wanted that choice instead of the reds.

I had to put on my thinking hat and see what I could come up with.  It would have been very easy to pick out a good Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon / Sauvignon Blanc blend, but there is nothing special in either of those choices.

Fortunately, I came across my last bottle of the 1988 Lindemans Hunter Valley Verdelhao.  I knew this would be a magnificent treat regardless of what food we matched it up with, assuming the bottle was still good.  I had been keeping it stored for the last four years between 2 – 6 degrees Celsius and ready for drink instead of the normal 14 degree Celsius of my cellar.  I believe this helped ‘save’ the wine as it maturation process would have slowed to a trickle.  Also, knowing the cork was almost 25 years old, I found a back-up bottle (1999 Moss Wood Semillon) if needed, and brought along my Ah So cork screw.  The Ah So cork screw is about the only way to get old cork out of an old bottle.  It is designed to be able to get old and soggy corks out of the bottle, but you still need to be careful and use only a small amount of pressure when putting the Ah So around the cork.  I have had several incidents where the cork has been pushed into the bottle when not careful.

As delicate as I tried to be, the cork broke half-way through.  Fortunately the cork did not appear compromised, just weak and soggy.  Then I had the issue of not being able to secure the bottom half of the cork without pushing it into the bottle.  It was not my intent to filter or aerate the wine since the structure of a 25-year-old wine is fragile at best.  However, at this point, we decided to do that with a slightly larger mesh which was able to remove any cork from the wine without causing too much damage to the little remaining structure.  To stop the cork in the bottle from catching in the neck and slowing or stopping the flow of the wine when pouring, I used a chopstick to hold the cork away from the neck, a method that works really well if you ever find yourself in that situation.

I was certainly excited to find when pouring the wine into the decanter that it had a rich, golden hue to it, without any indication of a brownish or other “off” color which means the wine is past its best drinking period.  And once I brought the decanter to my nose, I knew we had struck “liquid gold!”

Starting off the evening with this bottle of wine set the stage for everything that followed – it was a magnificent evening and meal overall.  The wine was huge and robust with great flavors of mandarin and tangerine, and a texture which seemed to float over the tongue.  Just holding the wine in my mouth was a thrill, experiencing everything the wine had to offer.

I have drunk a lot of wine in my time, but this would have to be in my Top 3 white wines ever along with the 1971 Chateau D’Yquem and the 1991 Lindemans Sauvignon Blanc.