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Pearls Before Wine (November 24, 2005)

Consider the oyster. It's an ugly mollusc but it can, under the right circumstances, produce a lustrous pearl. The oyster works this magic, not by an irritating grain of sand as I had been taught, but by worrying at a particle of food trapped within its shell – rather like having a sesame seed caught been your teeth. (Marvellous, the stuff you learn from the Internet.)

Cleopatra is said to have dissolved pearls in her wine, but the wine she drank must have been vinegar, because pearls only dissolve in vinegar. Small wonder then that she resorted to the asp. Who'd want to drink a steady diet of vinegar?

Yet an astounding number of people do. Look around the restaurant next time you dine out and I'll guarantee that one bottle in ten on the tables will be either acetic (vinegary), corked (musty), oxidized (pruny), maderized (tastes like sherry), volatile (smells high) or similarly flawed. And maybe I'm erring on the cautious side in terms of my estimate of bad wine.

Screwcaps have all but eliminated the problem of wines tainted by unclean corks, but only a small percentage of products on restaurant lists are under screwcap. (Sommeliers are learning how to present such closures with flair.) The reluctance of major companies to make the leap from cork to metal starts and ends with their marketing departments. The winemakers, for the most part, are only too eager to have their products presented to the consuming public as clean and flavourful as they were when they were first bottled, but the marketers contend that the public is not ready for screwcaps. I don't know whom they're talking to, because the people I know would happily forego the romantic ritual of watching some harassed waitress struggle to remove a piece of tree bark from a bottle with a squiggly piece of metal if they could be guaranteed that the wine they paid good money for was fit to drink.

It seems that the Goliaths of the industry have shrunk into the shadows on this one and let the Davids take the lead. Some of the little guys have had the courage to go all screwcap in their portfolios – for example, in Ontario, Malivoire and Flat Rock (the first winery in the world, incidentally, to bottle Icewine under screwcap). In British Columbia, Venturi-Schultz has for years been bottling all their products, including their excellent sparkling wine, under old-fashioned crown caps.

With the advent of tetrapacks (wine in cardboard containers such Vendange from California and French Rabbit from France), I can't understand the reluctance of the trade to embrace a new technology that eliminates the possibility of cork taint.

The problem with cork taint is that it happens by degrees. On the Richter scale of corkiness, even the most nasally challenged could detect that a 10 smelled like a sewer and should be returned there. A 2, on the other hand, might be barely perceptible on the nose to all but the most experienced tasters. However, a corked bottle is like being a little bit pregnant. The wine will never be uncorky and the merest hint of 2,4,6-trichloranisole, the chemical responsible for the problem, is enough to flatten the flavours and render the wine less palatable than it ought to be. More lightly corked wines (I'd say those bottles on the scale of 1 to 4) go undetected in restaurants by people who order them. The result is an unsatisfactory wine drinking experience and the diner will never order that product again.

The other problems of oxidation (red wines with brown rims that taste like prune juice) and maderization (white wines that taste like sherry) are usually storage problems. The wine has been exposed to heat and light, which prematurely ages it.

Volatile wines at their most trenchant can smell of nail polish; a touch of volatile acidity will heighten a wine's bouque, but too much will be offensive. Acetic acid is your basic vinegar that occurs because of oxidation. If you have ever left a glass of wine out overnight, the next morning your kitchen will smell like a vinegar factory.

If you don't feel confident in recognizing any of these flaws, I recommend that you have the sommelier taste the wine for you – or, better still, pass the glass over to the nearest woman at the table. Her nose is probably more acute than yours because she has spent many years selecting fragrances and knows what smells good and what doesn't. If there are no women at the table, try the neighbouring one. It might make for an interesting evening. If she's wearing pearls, so much the better.




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