The Turn of the Screw

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How would you feel if you opened a bottle of wine costing Bt. 28,000 only to discover that it was over the hill and virtually undrinkable? I expect you’d feel ever-so-slightly miffed. But this really happened a few years ago to the experienced wine critic Jean-Marc Quarin, when he was preparing bottles for a Bordeaux tasting. The wine was from Château Latour, one of most respected wine producers in the world.

So what went wrong? Jean-Marc Quarin blamed the cork. He claims that out of twelve bottles from the same case stored in ideal conditions, two of them will present extreme variations. This is a serious problem and he claims that invariably (though not always) it’s caused by faulty corks.

One alternative to cork is the screw-cap.  The most well-known brand is Stelvin, developed forty years ago by Rio Tinto Alcan. It has become so common that many in the wine trade refer to screw caps as “Stelvin closures”, regardless of origin. In New Zealand, they use little else. The debate continues about whether screw-caps are also suitable for top-of-the-range wines that need to be laid down for decades.

The main advantage of the Stelvin is that it’s not only easier to open and re-close, but also prevents oxidation and cork taint. Screw-caps have a much lower failure rate than cork, and in theory will allow a wine to reach the customer in perfect condition. The vast majority of wines are made for immediate consumption, so it makes little sense to waste a valuable natural resource like cork. “The corkscrew,” remarked one Australian wine-maker recently, “is so very last century.”

Both the wines this week contain two versions of the Grenache (“gren-ASH”) grape, considered local lads in the South Eastern corner of France. If you were gazing down from a north-bound cloud, it would lie slightly to the right of the Rhône Valley.

By the way, Rochebaron is also the name of a soft blue cheese made in the town of Beauzac in the Auvergne region.  And an odd thing it looks as well, with an unappetizing grey crust made, you might be interested to know, from edible ashes. But I digress. Let’s get to the wines. And despite the amazingly low prices, these are jolly good wines too.

Rochebaron Vin de France (white), France (Best Bt. 299)

This one is from the Ardèche and it’s a pale gold with a delightful floral smell of pineapple and hints of lemon, mint and fresh grass.  There’s plenty of fruit up-front and a pleasing crisp touch of acidity that gives the wine a lively quality. It’s very dry, refreshing and light-bodied and there’s a long, dry fruity finish with hints of citrus.

This very pleasing easy-drinker was made from Sauvignon, Chardonnay and White Grenache, the latter being an important grape variety in South-Eastern France. This wine really is great value and served very cold, it would make a brilliant apéritif or a good partner for grilled fish and seafood.

Rochebaron Vin de France (red), France (Best Bt. 299)

Here’s another real winner at this price; a blend of Merlot, red Grenache and Syrah. It looks and smells much more expensive than it actually is. A bright garnet red, it has a silky-looking texture and when you swirl it around the glass, long “legs” appear. Strawberries, red currants and cherries come through on the aroma along with spices, herbs and delicate floral hints. I thought I could even pick up a hint of licorice, which might come from Syrah in the blend.

This medium-bodied wine is superbly bone-dry with soft tannins. It has quite a lively, assertive taste with plenty of fruit up-front and there’s a long satisfying dry finish. At just over 12% alcohol, this easy-drinker would make a super “food wine” but serve it quite cool at around 15° C (that’s about 59° F).

Needless to say, both these wines come with screw-cap closures. But as yet, nobody has devised a way of removing the screw-cap with the romance and mystique of traditional cork-pulling, so there’s an interesting challenge for someone. Perhaps a choreographer could come up with a few ideas.