My husband, David, was driving back from Austin a couple of weeks ago and stopped into a wine store to check out the bargains on his way home.
He brought with him two half-bottles of a respectable Chateauneuf du-Pape, vintage 2004, and we opened one. It was very good. So, on his next trip to Austin he said he'd picked up more of the famous Rhone red wine since the closeout price was an amazing $2.99 a half bottle.
This time he bought more than just two bottles. But when we opened another a few days later, the odor of badly corked wine assaulted our noses instead of the rich aromas we'd enjoyed previously.
Was this a case of "you get what you pay for"?
As I got a fresh glass and poured a different wine, my first thought was that this bottle might be an indication of why the wine was so way-on-sale. Maybe there had been a flurry of complaints at some point, hurrying the remaining inventory on its way to the bargain bins.
Or, was it just proof of the assertion that out of, say, 100 bottles with cork closures, 3-4 are likely to be bad? (Some say as many as 10 will be bad, but there are no statistics to support the statement.)
It is true that half bottles, at 13.5 fluid ounces, age more quickly than full bottles. This is partly because the size of the cork and neck on a half bottle, and the amount of empty space between cork and wine inside the bottle, is the same as those on a regular, 27-fluid-ounce bottle. That means the same amount of oxygen is working on half the amount of wine.
But, would corked wine be the result of the relatively higher ratio of air to wine? Isn't this fault the result of a tainted cork?
We called Don White at Seazar's Fine Wine & Spirits, 6422 N. New Braunfels Ave., to hear his thoughts.
"That seems to indicate the cork was at fault, unless it was a batch problem," said White. "If it was a batch problem, you could get a whole case of wine that had matterized." Also, he noted, half bottles wouldn't necessarily have a higher rate of corkage than whole bottles.
Discussing vintage, White noted that while 2004 wasn't considered a great year in the Rhone, where this wine was made, it was considered a classic year. A full bottle of Chateauneuf Du Pape would do well with 10 years of aging. This half bottle, at 6 years old, was probably just at the peak of its drinkability.
Considering the price and the fact that it was only a bottle that was bad (so far) we already knew we were well ahead of the game, as White noted.
"You got the wine at way below cost, so if you get a bad bottle or two, just write it off. But I wouldn't plan a party around it," White added.
Another point or two...
Thanks to my favorite wine guru, Jancis Robinson, I learned a new wine word today: ullage. Not a term one hears everyday, whether you're a wine geek or not. "Ullage" is the word for that space I referred to earlier, the trapped air in the neck of the closed bottle between the cork and the wine.
A point on wine ettiquette: If you have ordered a wine at a restaurant and it is corked or otherwise flawed, the sommelier will be happy to open another bottle of the same wine or another wine entirely. If the sommelier opens the wine and you decide that you just don't like it, however, that's too bad. You should not expect the sommelier to bring you something else and not charge for the opened bottle.