08 May 2007

Pinotage matures – but cork crumbles

Crumbling cork and butlers' friendFor as long as I remember I have been telling anyone who would listen that Kanonkop’s Pinotages need bottle age.

"Don't drink it before its 10 years old," I'd advise. There were exceptions. I remember the 1999 vintage was very accessible when young, and I think some recent vintages have also been youthfully delightful . But, as is fitting with its recognised status of a South African ‘First Growth’, they are wines that repay keeping.

And uniquely Kanonkop wines feature a maturation graph on their back label, showing the progress from fermentation through bottling (shown in a warning grey block titled Bottle Shock) and gradually rising to an area marked Optimum Drinking. Anyone following the suggestion on the back of the 1995 vintage knew they should keep the bottle unopened for at least six years after purchase, since the optimum drinking period starts in 2002 and carries on past 2011.

Monday was the May Day public holiday in England. For obvious reasons this is my favourite holiday, and we celebrated with roast chicken with all the trimmings and a bottle of 1995 Kanonkop Pinotage.

I’d tasted the '95 Cape Winemakers Guild bottling at the winery in March and it was superb.

But warning bells rang as I tried to remove the cork. The corkscrew just pulled out crumbling cork, two more attempts just removed more cork fragments, and the visible part of the cork I had managed to lift a fraction of an inch above the bottle was stained red with wine.

I managed to remove the remains of the cork with a two pronged ‘butlers’ friend’ cork lifter.
Crumbling cork
The wine had a faint cabbage smell of old Pinot Noir, but the taste was delightful, soft rich blackcurrant fruits and some Pinotage sweetness. It was really drinkable and I have to admit we just enjoyed it and the bottle was finished much sooner than usual. The wine had a reasonable 13% abv (the latest vintage is 14.5%)

I have two bottles remaining of the 1995, and although I think the wine is on a plateau and will be drinking well for many years to come, I cannot trust the cork will keep the wines in that condition. The cork’s elasticity is going – the red stains along its length show that. And oxidation occurs as the elasticity goes.

The strongest argument against screw-caps (and one with which I have some sympathy) is that cork is proven for aging wines. Here we have a wine that will, can, and does age -- and 12 years isn’t long for wine -- and yet the cork isn’t up to it.

Maybe this is a one-off poor cork, but I’m not risking it. I’m opening my 1995’s sooner than later, and you might consider doing the same. Shame, as I was intending keeping them a while for another special occasion.
Note: the opener gained the name 'butlers' friend' because they allowed a dishonest servant to open and drink his employers best bottles, replacing them with cheaper wines and replace the cork without showing any mark on the cork.

(For the record, the wines have been kept since purchase on their sides in a temperature and humidity controlled EuroCave wine cellar.)

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