Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Praise of Cork?

Last week, my neighbors Nicolas and Antoine Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet invited me over for a very intriguing tasting: a comparison of the same wine, from the same disgorgement, bottled under three different closures. As you may know, the Chiquets have chosen to bottle all of their wines with Cortex, a cork fitted with a silicone plug in an effort to prevent cork taint. They hardly consider the matter closed, however. (Unfortunately that pun was intended!) Back in 2005, they disgorged and set aside a number of bottles of the 2001 Brut Tradition, bottled with traditional cork, Cortex and crown capsule. Since then, they’ve done a comparative tasting every six months to judge how each stopper has affected the wine over time.

We tasted the three wines blind, of course. The first one was absolutely perfect, with a rich texture and honeyed aromas of baked apple and plum tart, feeling generous and expansive on the palate. It showed everything you would expect from a Chiquet Tradition three years after disgorgement. The second showed a similar set of aromas as the first bottle, but with less complexity and without the same sense of dimension. While it was delicious, it didn't have quite the impact of the first bottle, and seemed slightly more developed on the palate. The third bottle was the least aromatic and the least developed. On the nose there was a slight oxidation, but the palate showed fresh, primary notes of ripe summer fruits, although again without the complexity of the first bottle. It almost surprised me that this was the same wine and from the same disgorgement as the others.

All of us preferred the first bottle out of the three. I suspected that the first would be cork, the second Cortex and the third capsule, and in fact that’s exactly what they were. So did this prove that traditional cork was in fact the superior stopper? Maybe. “The problem with cork is that sometimes it’s very good and sometimes it’s not good at all,” said Antoine. Nicolas noted that these results were very different from previous tastings (saying that the cork was showing particularly well and that the capsule showed more oxidation than usual), and proposed that we taste another round of bottles.

In the second round the three bottles were much closer together in character, although differences were still discernable. I liked the first one the best, with its balanced richness and full, creamy fragrance, backed by hints of autumnal spice. The second one was less forthcoming and less aromatic, and I found it less harmonious; the third was strangely reductive on the nose yet ample and fragrantly stone-fruity on the palate. Here, none of us agreed: my bottle turned out to be Cortex; Nicolas preferred the second, which was capsule; and Antoine picked the third, in traditional cork. At least Antoine was consistent.

At any rate, Nicolas says that they’ve got enough wines to repeat this tasting every six months for another twenty years, so I suppose we can continue to debate this for quite a while. I’m looking forward to the next round.


Henri Vasnier said...

Three bottles or even six bottles is not a statistically significant sample, as I'm sure you know. And there is inherent bottle to bottle variation with champagne, far more so than with any other wine, because each individual bottle is its own fermentation bin.

I've had at least two corked bottles of champagne that were closed with Cortex; so, it's obviously not a perfect solution, even if it might be a better solution (as to which, insufficient data). Are there some champagne producers using Diam or other (stated to be) 100% TCA-free "corks"? Results? Your views?

At my house, although our first love is grower champagnes, we're reasonably fond of Chandon Etoile (from California, USA), which is closed with a beer cap. I personally would not hesitate to buy a bottle of champagne just because it featured a beer cap; indeed, I'd consider that a reason to choose it over others.

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