Since 1991, celebrated Australian producer Penfolds have been running a series of recorking clinics for owners of bottles of their wines that are over 15 years old. ‘We’ve recorked/certified over 120 000 bottles,’ says chief winemaker Peter Gago, who was hosting this London event, the first to be held here since 2008.
It’s quite simple. If you have an old Penfolds bottle (or, indeed, a cellar full), then make an appointment, and rock up, and one of the Penfolds winemakers (they have used teams of as many of 12, such is the demand in some locations) will assess your bottles, and, if necessary, recork and certify them.
‘We won’t touch the bottles in good condition,’ says Gago, who has devised a template that can be used as a guide for how to proceed. ‘Years ago we’d spend 20 minutes arguing with a client whether we will recork or not.’
If the fill is too low, they won’t recork; if it’s too high they won’t either, because the wine is likely to be in good condition. They will only ever recork the same bottle once, and the wine is topped up with the current release wine, which for Grange this year was the celebrated 2008 vintage. The extra wine added is never more than 15 ml, which is 2% of the bottle. Gago says that in triangular tasting tests, you can’t spot the difference with this little wine added. If the ullage is too low, then the wine is likely to be in bad condition and too much wine would be required for topping up, changing the nature of the bottle.
If the fill is the appropriate level, the wine is carefully opened, and a small portion tasted. If it is typical and in good condition, then topping up proceeds, followed by recorking and the addition of a new capsule. Rather than this being a green light for counterfeiters, records are kept of wines coming through the recorking clinic, with a special numbered label attached to the back of the bottle. This acts as an authentication step: the wine is more traceable now than it was previously, and if anything, the auction value is increased. As fakes become more of an issue on the secondary market, this sort of authentication will become more valued.
If the wine isn’t good enough, it gets a white dot. It is recorked with a plain cork, and not certified – the owner is advised to take it home and drink it soon. It might still be a decent drink; it just doesn’t meet the standards for authentication.
‘You almost need to get into a bit of therapy and counselling,’ says Gago. ‘The level is down, the chances aren’t looking too good. For example, the 1962 Bin 60A is A$4500; if they brought in a 1951 Grange, it’s over A$50 000 a bottle. You are looking at a car one minute, an old crusty bottle the next. So there’s a little bit of pressure, a bit of emotion.’
It’s really interesting to see the process in action. For Penfolds, this is an expensive commitment, but it is also extremely clever marketing, and a good way to engage with customers who are now spending a lot of money on these wines.
‘Now we are not giving the wines an extra 30–40 years’ life,’ says Gago. ‘What we are doing is we are arresting deterioration because of leakage and seepage and saturation of the cork. We are not resurrecting it and giving it something it never had in the first place.’
In total, 230 bottles were recorked at the London event, including a rare 1956 St Henri and a 1959 Grange. ‘We’ve been running these clinics around the world for over 20 years and the experience is as fresh as it was back in the beginning,’ says Gago. ‘It’s all about people, humanity, emotion and wine.’
Here’s a film of the event, with Peter Gago taking us through the process.