There are times when we all have to gamble on a bottle of wine, if you have a cellar, and are absent-minded like me. Some people cannot have a cellar for a myriad of reasons and they only buy for immediate consumption, and they will only know the sadness of pouring a wine down the drain, if a bottle is corked. We found some wines during the Great Lockdown that had seen better days, and I know that we have a few more waiting to be discovered. The other evening, we were having a casual dinner at home, just the two of us, and I went into the cellar, some may call it a glorified closet as I cannot turn around in the aisle. I went to the lower left-hand column of French wines and I thought I would grab an older bottle.
I now look at the liquid in the bottle, after I have pulled it out of the cell that it occupied to see if there has been evaporation. I know that when I am talking about a wine that we are drinking, I claim that the wine evaporates as we are talking with friends or having dinner, especially if it is awesome. Though the evaporation that I am talking about is while the cork and capsule are still fully sealed and there is a gap of air between the wine and the capsule (that piece of metal or nowadays often plastic that goes over the corked-up bottle at the winery) as the wine is filled up past the capsule at the winery. If there is any space of air, that space is called ullage. Ullage is the Anglicized version of the French word ouillage and it has a couple of meanings, both kind of similar in the big picture with wine. To put it in easy-to-understand layman’s terms, it is the amount of air space between the wine in the bottle and the cork that I am going to discuss, the other meaning is for the evaporation of wine in a barrel while it is aging, before bottling and normally the winery “tops” the barrels with additional wine to keep the barrels full, to prevent oxidation. The more air space the better the chance that the wine has met air, as the cork and capsule are not air-tight any more.
The wine in question as Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint-Martin Reserve des Seigneurs Cairanne Cotes du Rhone Villages 1994. The Alary family settled in Cairanne in 1692 and have been wine growers for ten generations. In 1984, the brothers Frederic and Francois Alary took over the winery and they were pioneers of organic farming and biodynamic farming in 2008. In 2020, their children did not want to take over the winery and it was sold to the Abeille-Fabre family, owners of Chateau Mont-Redon in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and wine growers for ten generations as well. In 1936, when the AOC Cotes du Rhone was classified, Cairanne was part of the whole. In 1967, the AOC Cotes du Rhone Villages was created and Cairanne became part of this subset, and finally in 2016 AOC Cairanne was designated. Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint-Martin covers twenty-five hectares in Cairanne on a mix of clay soil, limestone, and red iron rich soil on the elevated steep hills of Saint-Martin. The vines are for the most part about forty years of age, with some in the hundred-year mark. The estate is about fifty-five percent Grenache Noir, twenty-five percent Mourvedre and twenty percent Syrah with a few old varieties of Counoise, Vaccarese or Muscardin and Carignan planted in small quantities for a touch of added complexity. The fruit is hand-harvested and destemmed and then crushed; the Carignan is whole-cluster fermented. The fermentation period is for about three weeks using wild yeasts, then the wine is aged in vats for about twelve months, bottled without fining or filtering. The wine still had a nice red color (probably softened with age, but with no foxing or browning). The nose still offered some dark fruit, but also strong notes of tobacco. On the palate there were some tones of fruit and the tannins had softened and there was still some terroir in the finish. While the wine was still enjoyable, I am sure that if we had opened it about five years earlier, it may have been a much bigger wine, and yes, I still have a soft spot for my Rhone wines.