Coravin is a new needle-through-the-cork system that is already revolutionising the way we drink wine. Margaret Rand explains how it works, while Christelle Guibert introduces a series of Decanter tests to put Coravin through its paces...
The year is 2024; the place is your own dining room. The occasion is your birthday, and a handful of wine-loving friends have come to help you celebrate. You produce a bottle of 2009 Claret…
‘Oh, I prefer the 2010. Have you got any?’
‘Can we try this Gevrey-Chambertin?’
‘I’d like some white. What have you got?’
Ten years ago this scenario would have had you grinding your teeth. Now you just hand each their preferred bottle and tell them to take turns with the Coravin. The way we drink has changed.
Could this happen? If Decanter’s tasting is a success, it could. Decanter is putting Coravin through its paces to see if its claims stand up and if it really is as revolutionary as it seems. Ours is a demanding test; if Coravin works for us, it will work for you.
Coravin is a needle-through-the-cork system that enables you to siphon wine out of bottles without spoiling what’s left. The needle is based on one used for chemotherapy, and a cork is similar to the implant which is put under the skin for chemo, and through which the needle goes. But don’t let this put you off. Greg Lambrecht, the inventor of Coravin, comes from the medical device industry, and he studied nuclear physics at college. When he worked at Pfizer he ‘got good at needles’, he says.
He also got good at argon gas, which is the other half of the Coravin equation. Having pushed the needle through the cork, you pull a trigger to inject argon through the needle at a pressure of 24 pounds per square inch. When the bottle is pressurised, you can pour the wine into your glass – a mouthful just to to taste, or a full glass. it’s up to you.
The wine left in the bottle never comes in contact with oxygen, and the cork – because cork is elastic – reseals itself in just a few minutes. Each argon canister (or ‘capsule’ as they are referred to by Coravin) can be used 10 to 15 times, and since shipping is expensive (they can’t travel by air) it’s best to order several at the same time. A pack of three canisters is priced at $29.95, excluding shipping, with bigger discounts when you buy in larger quantities – 30 capsules for $215, for example.
Lambrecht invented and developed Coravin over 10 years, starting from when his wife was pregnant and not drinking, and he didn’t want to have to drink just one wine at a time. ‘I never drink two glasses of the same wine in one night,’ he says. ‘i’m always doing a horizontal, or a vertical, or a tasting of different grape varieties.’ it’s the equivalent of television channel-hopping.
Coravin is not a system of wine preservation. if you want to keep an unfinished bottle fresh until you return from holiday, then a squirt of inert gas will do the job. Coravin is a system of wine sampling. The cork stays in place, the level of wine goes down, and you can, if you want, drink from the same bottle over a period of years. it’s a way of monitoring the drinkability of a wine, although it’s worth remembering that once the wine is blanketed with argon it won’t – it can’t – evolve in the same way as an unopened bottle. it’s perfect if you live alone or with a non-drinker, or just like variety. No longer are you tied to the tyranny of the 750ml bottle. if you want a glass of sauternes you can have just that: dessert wine producers, desperate to get us to drink the stuff, ought to be thrilled with Coravin.
It’s not about wine preservation, says Lambrecht, even though argon is injected into the bottle. ‘The cork is the preserver… The quality and age of the cork is everything.’ A young, good-quality cork will spring back into shape; older corks are less elastic. he makes a thinner (vintage cork) needle for old corks, and these should be used for any wine from the 1970s or earlier, or from the 1980s or earlier in Burgundy. The needles are long enough for any cork – Angelo Gaia’s super-long versions were the benchmark.
It sounds so straightforward that one wonders why it took 10 years to develop. The answer is partly because the quality of the wine left in the bottle had to be tested in real time. Lambrecht’s main problem in developing it was one of bottle variation: ‘finding real consistency, both of grape variety and of region’ was not easy. Burgundy, you won’t be surprised to hear, revealed great bottle variation (with exceptions; some domaines were very consistent), but the Rhône and California proved very consistent.
So far, Coravin’s use is limited to bottles and magnums sealed with cork. (Curiously, the cork industry has been ‘rather stand-offish’, says Lambrecht.) he’s working on a screwcap version, and also on a Champagne-cork version: the latter is ‘the hardest thing i’ve ever done. it’s not the cork that’s the problem, it’s that the pressure in the bottle is higher than our output pressure, so all the gas leaves the wine.’ Expect a Champagne Coravin around 2016. A jeroboam version is also on the cards: the problem is that at the moment the clamp doesn’t open enough and so needs to be adapted.
The other possible hazard is sediment, the finer bits of which will pass through the needle. The solution is to keep such bottles horizontal, and tap them while they are still in the wine rack, though most reds don’t have much deposit until they’re fairly old. Then there’s the question of aeration. if your wine needs aeration you’ll have to pour it slightly in advance and let it breathe in the glass – in which case our recommendations on decanting times (see November and December 2013 issues and January 2014 issue) should be adjusted sharply downwards.
Coravin was launched in the Us first, then the UK and France, and then hong Kong, Germany, italy, spain and elsewhere. its launch in Japan is complicated by the Japanese ban on having argon in contact with food, so Lambrecht is working on a nitrogen version (nitrogen is less tolerant of user error, says Lambrecht – if you leave the needle in the cork too long, the air goes back and forth. Argon is heavier, so just sits there).
Who will be buying it? Restaurants, obviously: more than 200 restaurants in the Us have one and some in Britain bought it before it was launched here – the UK have bought it since. London restaurants to have adopted it include Avenue, Quality Chop house, Sketch, Bar Boulud, 28°-50°, Pétrus and Marcus. They’re using it, too: Master sommelier Xavier Rousset of 28°-50° describes it as ‘efficient and user-friendly – very impressive’.
How do you tell if a restaurant has one? Check the wine list for a separate section, such as the ‘Exploring iconic Wines by the Glass’ section at the Maddox street branch of 28°-50°. There Rousset offers the likes of Ridge Monte Bello 1999 and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Echézeaux 1999 in various measures. David Clawson at London’s The Remedy, who ‘couldn’t be a bigger fan of Coravin’, is taking a different approach: all 50 wines on his cellar list are going to be available by the half bottle, courtesy of Coravin, with a smaller selection of by-the-glass pours. he’s unusual among London restaurants in having plenty of storage space for wine – Martin Lam, late of Ransome’s Dock, points out that most restaurants can usually only keep a certain quantity of wines at serving temperature because of space constrictions. if your favourite restaurant doesn’t start offering its entire list by the glass, that may be why.
The winemaker’s perspective
For Decanter’s consultant editor Steven Spurrier, who describes himself firmly as a consumer rather than a collector, Coravin is ‘a brilliant invention and a must for the committed wine collector’. Christian Seely of AXA-Millésimes, owner of numerous properties, says: ‘it’s a brilliant idea for vintage Port. You can draw off a perfect glass each sunday after lunch. If you’re living as a couple, you might have a bottle of Champagne, then a bottle of red. But if you then open a bottle of Port, you’re probably in for an argumentative sunday afternoon. Coravin ensures a calm sunday afternoon.’
A route to peaceful sundays is not actually how Lambrecht has been describing Coravin to the top Bordeaux châteaux he has visited – ‘they’re making the product people are using it on, so we don’t want to upset them’ – but he does say that ‘there is no producer of Bordeaux or Burgundy to whom we would not give one’. Véronique Sanders of Haut-Bailly has one and says: ‘it’s an amazing device, and it will change the life of a lot of people: sales teams, sommeliers, producers and even consumers who might enjoy several different wines every evening.’
In any case, peace at home will probably be achieved by keeping the family Coravin under lock and key. Think of the havoc that thirsty teenagers could wreak on a cellar. Then think of those teenagers armed with a Coravin.
Margaret Rand is the Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of 2013 for articles in Decanter.
Click below to read about Decanter’s Coravin experiment; the methodology, how to use it and Steven Spurrier’s tasting
Look out for reports on our tastings over the next year in future issues of Decanter
Written by Margaret Rand
Coravin: the methodology
Coravin inventor Greg Lambrech
Coravin is the hot new gadget in the wine world. The concept sounds incredible, but we all have the same question: does it work? A survey on Decanter.com showed that the majority of you are cautious or sceptical about Coravin. Before you decide to risk it on your rare vintages of DRC or claret, we’ve decided to put it to the test. Our experiment will take place over a year, starting in this issue.
We have selected two classic red wines – Château Lynch-Bages from Bordeaux and Shafer’s Hillside Select Cabernet from Napa – at different maturity levels: 2006, 2000 and 1996. We also have a mature bottle of vintage Port, Warre’s 1983. As recommended by Coravin, the vintage cork needle was used for the bottle of Port.
Using the Coravin, we first poured a tasting measure from each of the wines; we used two bottles of the same vintage, to allow for bottle variation. Decanter’s consultant editor, Steven Spurrier, tasted the wines and wrote a tasting note for each. Every three months, we will repeat the same exercise to ensure the wines under Coravin stay as fresh as when we first poured them. Spurrier will compare his tasting notes against the first tastings, his ‘control’ tasting notes.
In a year’s time, we will do a final tasting of the bottles poured with Coravin against unopened, control bottles; we will also open two bottles of the same vintage to allow for bottle variation. The final tasting will take place blind, to ensure Spurrier is not influenced by the half-empty bottles.
Why argon gas?
We asked inventor Greg Lambrecht why argon was chosen over any other gas.
‘While developing Coravin, I tried a variety of gasses to determine which was best in ensuring the wine in the bottle didn’t change during or after access by Coravin. I tried nitrogen, argon, helium and mixtures of argon and carbon dioxide.
‘It quickly became apparent that nitrogen and argon were best. Both are used in the winemaking process today to protect wine from oxidation at various points during bottling. But ultimately argon is more reliable in protecting wines of different varieties and vintages.
‘Argon is one of the noble gases, like helium. It is completely inert: it has no known chemical reactions and is completely odorless and colourless. I call it an antisocial gas; it doesn’t even like itself! Most importantly, it is also heavier than air. This means that when the Coravin needle is through the cork but you are not pouring any wine, argon resists the entry of oxygen into the bottle. These two properties of being completely inert and heavier than air is why it is so reliable at helping prevent changes on the nose and palate of wines that have been accessed using Coravin.’
Coravin: how to use it
Coravin: Steven Spurrier’s tasting
Deep red colour, some maturity on rim. Quite ripe and robust Cabernet berry fruit on the nose. Shows more warmth than expected from the vintage: richness is present on the palate, slight spiciness and there are firm but ripe tannins on the finish. Still a little four-square but will show very well as it evolves. A fine, classic Pauillac.
Deep mahogany red turning to tawny on the rim. Ripe, warm and spicy autumnal red fruits on the nose. Powerful and elegant on the palate, very good richness; ripe tannins refresh and lift the finish. A broad-shouldered Pauillac with a good future still in front of it.
Full mahogany red colour, tawny rim but firm and vigourous at 18 years old. Rich, slightly briary autumnal red fruits on the nose, an impression of autumnal leaves and a hint of black truffle. Elegantly rich on the palate – a youthful freshness is still there while the flavours are mature, smooth but firm. Firm and ripe on the finish, the tannins are well-absorbed and adding to the length of flavour. Very good now, with a decade in front of it.
Shafer, Hillside Select
Dense black-red with deep ruby rim, an impressively young, velvety colour. Rich black berry fruits on the nose, rich spices, nice warm concentration of fruits. Smooth, plummy, rich blackberry/blackcurrant Cabernet flavours, the richness dominating the ripe tannins, which will keep the wine for a decade or more as the fruit evolves and matures. An impressive wine that leaves a natural vineyard richness on the palate, energetically enjoyable now, with more complexity to come.
Fine, deep carmine red, only a little maturity on the rim. Concentrated nose with late summer/early autumn red fruits and lifted spice. Lovely smoothness of texture on the palate, expressive, briary red fruits and natural richness and depth of flavour that is refeshed on the finish by robust but fine tannins. Probably at its peak, but will last well.
Deep mahogany red, red-tawny rim, still young looking at 18 years. Rich concentration of ripe berry fruits and spices that are attractively present on the nose; fine smoothness on the palate, impression of coffee beans (also on the nose), the fruit being mature, moving to tertiary flavours but still refeshing thanks to the natural tannins; a very fine mature Napa Cabernet of class and disctinction.
Fine mahogany red with tawny rim, good firm colour at 31 years. Lively concentration of richness and spice on the nose, natural warmth of nuts and fruit. Both warmth and depth on the palate with fine vigour and clarity of expression. Not a blockbuster, but a fine, mature vintage Port – all natural concentration and sweetness with a touch of tannins to refesh the finish.