If you ever thought that white wine just doesn’t keep, think again. In the old hospital cellars in Strasbourg, there is a barrel of the 1472 vintage wine. I don’t know the grape; I know only that it’s white. Still white, as a leak in the barrel has recently revealed.
The barrel started leaking almost a year ago after holding the wine for some 300 years. To prevent more leakage while a new barrel was under construction, the wine was transferred to a stainless steel tank. The new barrel took more than 200 hours to make with the same kinds of tools used centuries ago. Authenticity would accept nothing less.
The 450-liter bottle is an exact replica of the 1718 barrel, an odd-shaped one resembling an egg. The crew racking the wine from the tank to the new barrel needed 30 minutes to pour it all.
The hospital cellar master claims the wine has been tasted only three times: in 1576 in honor of the new alliance between Strasbourg and Zurich; in 1718 to toast the laying of the hospital corner stone; and in 1945 by General Leclerc as he liberated Strasbourg from the Germans at the end of WWII.
No one disputes that it is the oldest wine in barrel in the world, but I have trouble really believing that those who racked the wine into the new barrel didn’t at least wet a finger.
There are unplanned times when one just must have a special bottle but can’t think of a real reason for it. That’s what happened to me a few days ago. Perhaps it was the bitterly cold wind and the snow flurries or that we were feeling a bit stir crazy. Impulsively I told my wife to throw a steak on the grill and reached into my temperature-controlled cabinet of about three dozen “special” wines.
I knew I would accept whatever came out. No, I do not mark the shelves nor distinguish between varietals other than to place white wines on lower shelves. Out came a 2009 VinRoc Cabernet from Atlas Peak that had resulted from my last trip to the Napa Valley and its fertile (for wine) mountain slopes. The winemaker’s notes rather cleverly promise that this wine will “Roc U.” It did.
At some five years of bottle age, the tannins had smoothed out and the fruit dominated in that suggestively sweet way of Napa Cabernets as opposed to the slight, pleasant bitterness of the same wine in Bordeaux.
On Atlas Peak I learned that the rocky vineyards impart a “stony” quality to the wines which, at VinRoc is enhanced by the wine’s production occurring in a mountain cave, hence the name. This bottle belied any charges that California mountain-grown wines can’t age; this 2009 Cabernet still had plenty of life but none of the immaturity of new bottlings. It re-proved to my palate that there is an immense difference between mass market wines and hand-crafted wines.
At VinRoc the grapes are cut then carried in small boxes to the wine cave rather than being dumped into more traditional harvest baskets. Every step of the production process is carefully monitored and reflective of the fine palates of owner Kiley Lee and Michael Parmentier. At $98.00 a bottle, VinRoc Cabernet is hardly a daily-use wine, but it’s a splendid change of pace and a fine example of why we wine lovers continue our pursuits.
VinRoc production is so limited that few retailers ever see it. A couple dozen upscale restaurants, mostly in California, carry it, and it is available on-line — www.VinRocNapa.com. But best of all, drive up Atlas Peak to VinRoc Wine Caves. Better call first: (707) 265-0943 or write: Cheers@VinRocNapa.com.
Once upon a time, before most of us had heard of a wine bottle screw cap, the late Count Ernwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau confessed to me that his vintners in Schloss Vollrads and the scientists at the Geisenheim Wine Laboratories agreed that the screw cap is the safest, most efficient, cheapest top for our wines. He said its only problem was a marketing issue because consumers see the cork as a romantic part of the wine experience and the screw cap as a symbol of cheap wine.
That conversation took place more than 30 years ago. It has taken almost that long for the screw cap to catch on, but for the last ten years or so it has gained traction with consumers and retailers alike. Even so, few in the know are prepared to say that wine keeps well when stored in screw capped bottles. “More time is needed,” they say, but, frankly, I don’t know many cork-stoppered bottles that survive 15 or 20 years.
As something of an elder statesman in wine use, I lean nostalgically to the cork. I like the extraction process with the old-time wine waiter’s cork screw. No flap-winged opener for me. I like the look of a wine stain on the cork, of seeing the producer’s name burnt or increasingly printed on it. I like to collect corks in a large jar (and try to decide what to do with them when I get a jar full). I like it that corks are renewable and do ot require a tree harvest.
And yet… there’s something pleasing about a quick twist opening the bottle. It’s good to see a restaurant server quickly open a bottle without trying to hide a grimace while prying a cork from a bottle he or she is not allowed to rest on the table while doing so. I have yet to experience a “corked” wine from a screw capped bottle. That should be obvious, but so far I have found no tainted wines among my screw caps. But I have yet to keep a screw capped bottle for any length of time.
Those who study such things report that about 15% of all U.S. wines are screw-capped, more whites than reds and that the percentage is just about 90% in New Zealand. I haven’t seen similar data for Europe, but I note that more and more of the French and Italian wines I buy come with screw caps, and it should be noted that the best quality screw caps were developed in France. That said, the grand estates in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Piedmont have not rushed to the new packaging.
To offset the absence of a cork popping, I have adopted the Champagne method for opening screw caps — gripping the cap firmly and giving a sudden twist to the bottle. I guess I have accepted that screw caps are really here.OLDER POSTS »