In pursuit of paradise lost

and Andrew Dornenburg

Even if a bottle of wine leaves its winery in immaculate condition, the road it travels to your glass is fraught with peril every step of the way. Because wine is a living, breathing substance, it can be mortally wounded by improper handling. A wine that starts out perfect can be ruined by many factors: how it is shipped and stored, when and with what it is poured.

Although a number of those elements are out of the winemaker's hands, if a bottle disappoints, customers probably will blame the winery whose name is on the label. That is why some wineries increasingly are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure customer satisfaction.

An estimated — to 5 percent of cork-sealed wines are imperfect, so a lot of wine lovers are uncorking bottles of sub-par wine &

and often faulting not flawed retail storage or handling, but ... you guessed it. That's partly why Australia's Penfolds winery has since 1991 offered more than 50 "re-corking clinics" around the world, inviting collectors to bring their Penfolds reds aged 15 years or longer for evaluation and re-corking, which prevents further wine deterioration caused by damaged corks. "This not only creates enormous goodwill among Penfolds customers, but it takes bad wines out of the system," says Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago.

A New Orleans wine collector who owns more than 400 bottles of Penfolds Grange, Australia's most prestigious red wine, took a 1978 Grange with a markedly low fill level to Penfolds's recent New York clinic. Possible factors, including cork absorption and evaporation, were explored.

Gago, a former teacher who is one of the most gifted wine educators we've ever seen in action, poured about a half-ounce for examination to determine whether the wine was "as it should be for that vintage." (The bottle was then topped off with the wine's most recent vintage.) His verdict? "Its palate is better than its nose," he noted before giving the wine his stamp of approval for re-corking, while cautioning collector Bob DeBellevue, "You'll want to drink this bottle soon."

As most collectors know, there's an inherent risk-reward trade-off in the aging of wines. Perfect timing can smooth a wine's rough edges into silky, nuanced elegance, so Penfolds publishes editions of "The Rewards of Patience," a paperback featuring an independent panel's assessments of when each Penfolds vintage should be at its peak. However, too much time can provide too many opportunities for something to go wrong. Over dinner, we tasted a 1982 Penfolds Grange &

a vintage for which collectors have paid hundreds of dollars &

that was sadly off. (A stellar 1982 was immediately brought out to replace it.)

At the same dinner and at a fraction of the price, the 2002 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz ($35), with luscious black-cherry flavors that echoed the duck breast with poached cherries that it accompanied, proved a peak experience. It underscored the fact that the food paired with a wine can have a tremendous impact on the way that wine is perceived. That is leading more winemakers to include food-pairing tips on their labels and Web sites and to educate the public on the flavor dynamics of wine with food.

We participated in a fascinating experiment when renowned winemaker and master of wine Steve Smith of New Zealand's Craggy Range Winery invited us and a roomful of other East Coast wine journalists to blind-taste a half-dozen acclaimed 2006 New Zealand sauvignon blancs: Astrolabe and Craggy Range Old Renwick Vineyard (both unavailable in the United States), Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard ($22), Kim Crawford Marlborough ($17), Saint Clair Marlborough ($17) and Wild Rock "The Infamous Goose" ($15).

We sampled the wines, all in excellent condition, and ranked them in order of preference. After tasting them without food, the group rated them this way:

1. Saint Clair

2. Astrolabe and Kim Crawford (a tie)

4. Wild Rock

5. Craggy Range Old Renwick Vineyard

6. Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard

The outcome when the same wines were tasted with food (a salad, smoked sturgeon, lobster with fennel) was decidedly different, with the former last-place wine coming out on top. The No. — pick, the refreshingly crisp and minerally Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard, which was Andrew's overall favorite, was also the lone entry from New Zealand's warmer, more northern Martinborough district. Sandy Block, Legal Sea Foods' vice president of beverage operations, later called this single-vineyard wine "unique" and one of his favorites, adding that he frequently pairs it with Dover sole with capers, oven-roasted rainbow trout and classic baked scrod.

The food-paired runners-up &

which shared a more tropical-fruit flavor profile characteristic of Marlborough sauvignon blancs &


2. Kim Crawford (both of our second-favorites)

3. Craggy Range Old Renwick Vineyard (Karen's overall favorite)

4. Saint Clair

5. Astrolabe

6. Wild Rock

The results underscored how food distinctly alters one's perception of wine, a point that drives our own methodology of tasting wines both without and with food.

Excellence in wine, as in food, is rooted in nature. However, as consumers better understand that the way in which wine is nurtured from vineyard to glass determines its ultimate enjoyment, we predict that wineries will continue to expand their own post-production nurturing to new levels.

Share This Story