One broken neck, one old cork, two celebrations

One broken neck, one old cork, two celebrations

As is well documented, 1927 was a disastrous year for claret but an excellent vintage for port. Now understandably scarce, and my father having omitted to lay down a conventional celebratory pipe, I was faced with a thoughtlessly last-minute desire to produce at least one bottle for my 80th birthday dinner. I was obliged to contact the broker’s men. Paul Bowker of Wilkinson Vintners came up with a 1927 Cockburn. I gulped at the price and was concerned that its only identification was a hand-written label hung round its neck. However, Paul, who was coincidentally my immediate successor as head of Christie’s wine department, assured me of its impeccable provenance. To be on the safe side I also bought three bottles of 1967 Cockburn, each at a tenth of the price!

The 1927 Cockburn, with its equally renowned 1908, is one of the greatest vintage ports of all time and I was anxious to have confirmation of name and vintage which would, all being well, be branded on the cork. I left the bottle standing for several days in my office, finally opening and decanting it in the late afternoon.

What follows is a sort of addendum to Steven Spurrier’s article on decanting (May 2007). How does one extract the cork of an ancient vintage port in one piece, or at least enough to afford a glimpse of the branding – essential in this instance?

Reassuringly, it was a three-part moulded bottle with the bulbous neck devised to allow the lower half of the cork to swell to ensure an effective long-lasting period of maturation.

There are several methods, all needing a modicum of experience, skill and a bit of luck. One way, requiring courage as well as skill, is to knock the top of the neck off with a sharp upward swipe with the back of a heavy kitchen knife – difficult if not impossible with a modern bottle, which lacks the neck-ring flange of the old moulded bottle. I have succeeded once or twice, but it can be tedious and messy, like trying to kill a wounded animal. Neatly done, it is highly satisfactory. The most spectacular demonstration was at a dinner party in Leicestershire when our host, a well-oiled, long-retired colonel, standing next to the fireplace, neatly swiped off the top of the neck with his regimental sword.

Another, more dependable, traditional method is to clamp the neck with heated port tongs and, with perfect timing wipe it with a cold wet rag, better still a feather. The result is a clean crack, enabling the neck to be eased off and wine decanted.

I, as on this recent occasion, use a more brutal method. Having cut away the original and singularly uninformative lead capsule, I inserted my old T-shaped corkscrew, – a Screwpull is useless, its helix screw not long or wide enough – to see how firm the cork was. Unsurprisingly it was somewhat crumbly, though a small piece I hooked out was encouraging: ‘’s’ could just be seen. My next move was to push the cork down in the wine and, to prevent the cork blocking the neck, hold it back with the corkscrew while decanting it through a port sieve which, dutifully, caught the flaky crust – proof of long undisturbed cellaring. Apart from a small amount of light sediment at the base of the bottle, the wine was remarkably clear and bright.

It was delicious. A palish, warm, fully mature healthy amber, lovely old candle wax scent and still sweet, with beautifully integrated spirit, delicate flesh, and great length. Unquestionably a great wine in perfect condition.

Next came the brutal bit, not to the wine but to the bottle. In a deep stainless steel sink next to my office, I covered the bottle to stop flying glass, and knocked the neck off with a hammer, carefully tapping its sides to remove the glass. Lo and behold: the cork was clearly branded ‘Cockburn(’s) Vintage 1927.’

No problem with the 1967. I left this for the club’s sommelier to decant. Good cork, fully labelled. The year was initially regarded by Cockburn’s as another 1927, but it was not and never will be in the same stellar firmament. Despite being half the age of the star of the evening (I am referring to the port) the 1967 was a very similar palish tawny but with a noticeably weaker rim, flavour good but less intense.

Well, not much room for the rest of my birthday wines. Apéritif: 1998 Pol Roger, vibrant and refined; a pleasing 2000 Chassagne-Montrachet, Champs Gains; then my reliable standby Château Haut-Batailley 2000 and, despite a ‘no present’ celebration, I couldn’t say no to Hugh Johnson’s generous 1996 Lafite. Next, a charmingly teasing, refreshing, low-alcohol 2006 Moscato d’Asti, my favourite Nivole of Michele Chiarlo leading up to the two vintage ports already briefly and inadequately described.

Lastly, for the second celebration. Two days later, a lunch to mark my retirement from the Board of Christie’s, at which, appropriately, was served vintage port of the year I was first appointed a director: 1967 Cockburn! Happily, I am to continue as consultant and, editor permitting, will continue to bore the pants off Decanter’s – up until now – loyal readers.

What Michael’s been drinking this month

The best and worst

Outstandingly the best, an exquisitely scented Domaine Leflaive 1999 Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet, at a Bacchus Society dinner at Le Taillevent, Paris. The worst, Château Mellot 2004, Côte Marmandais, at Deauville’s grandest hotel, The Royal-Barrière.

Written by Michael Broadbent