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Slow and steady

Having to open a 50-year-old bottle of wine is a daunting responsibility. Easy, that’s what friends are for.

She has been awaiting for a long time; quiet, without even moving, waiting for the big day. You’re not about to let bad planning or first-timer’s rush spoil the moment. Stay calm. First comes hygiene. After fifty years, not even the cleanest bottle in the world is free of its share of grime, mold and filth of unknown origin. We will begin by stripping the capsule that covers her neck with the help of that cute little knife that professional corkscrews have (by the way, half a century ago, these were made of lead and tin).

This way we can gaze at it in all its glory, the same way it came to the world after it

was bottled. It will also be useful to check the state of the cork, whose extraction will be critical. With a wet cloth we will softly caress it until clean and shiny. Afterwards, slowly and without any sudden movements, we will put it in a vertical position to rest for a couple of days in a quiet and fresh place; only then will gravity allow any particles to settle at the bottom of the bottle. After five decades, the tannins that all red wines have will be victims of polymerization, which in English means they would have come together in insoluble molecules of greater size (better known in some circles as lees).

After resting for a few days, the most important moment arrives: the removal of the cork. Just as a neurosurgeon doesn’t use an axe (and if he does, you’d better run for your life), this lady doesn’t accept the use of any tool. You need an Ah-So corkscrew or “the butler’s friend”, an essential artifact to extract a cork that must have lost the elasticity and hardness of its youth. This preferred tool has an ovalshaped grip with two parallel prongs of different lengths made out of a flexible metal that will be inserted into the cork with soft swinging movements. Hugging the cork in this way, softly rotate the corkscrew while also gently pulling it to get it out. If good luck is not on our side or if we are just being clumsy, the cork will disintegrate and its particles will swim reproachfully in the wine.

Don’t panic: it is time to activate plan B. First we need a decanter and a filter; and run to the corner store for a funnel and a linen cloth. And if we haven’t savored these steps enough, let’s slow things down even more. Put the cloth over the funnel–it will be our filter–and put it slowly over the mouth of the decanter (we don’t want to shake the lees), then tilt the bottle at a 45o angle and start pouring the wine slowly and steadily, lifting it as it starts to empty. Sommeliers place a candle underneath the neck to check that the suspended particles stay in the bottle, but we can use our cell phone’s flashlight nowadays. Congratulations, you just performed your first decantation.

It doesn’t matter if everything has gone smoothly up util now–whether the cork made it out without any trouble or that you put your whole heart into it. Now, it’s no longer about you –every bottle is a world of its own. Look for a good wine glass because this could be the night you’ll either want to remember, or forget. Nobody can guarantee the quality of a red wine after it has been sitting inside a bottle for fifty years… and that’s part of the fun.