The question: My girlfriend and I had the opportunity to visit the French wine region Châteauneuf-du-Pape and bought a bottle for about €35 [roughly $45 at current exchange rates] The intention was to save it for a future birthday. We arrived back to our apartment in Aix-en-Provence and found there was dried-up wine along the side of the bottle, which had clearly run down the neck. On further inspection, there was also fresh wine slowly oozing down the side. I took it to a local wine purveyor and asked what I should do. His view was that there was some problem with the corking and that it should be drunk immediately. So we did. Should I try to get in touch with the winery and ask for a refund?
The answer: Sorry about your experience. But my theory diverges from the wine purveyor's …
The sticky wine residue may – I stress, may – have been caused by negligent handling after your purchase. Did the bottle travel back to your apartment in the trunk of your car in summer? Wine is highly sensitive to heat. Fluid expands as temperature climbs, while the solid bottle retains the same dimensions. The wine may have pushed up through the sides of the cork. The tin capsule that covers the top of the neck would have forced the wine to flow down the side of the bottle, leaving that sticky, semi-dry residue. It's a judgment call as to whom to blame. The cork may indeed have been cut to a diameter that was too narrow to provide a tight seal, but even a cork machined to a perfect tolerance likely would have permitted the wine to pass by.
A car trunk can quickly turn into a sauna in the heat of a southern French summer. It's easy to underestimate the phenomenon when you're riding in air-conditioned comfort sipping a cool Evian. That's why I always travel with insulated Styrofoam containers, which preserve the bottle's chill, and ask the rental agency for a white car. White paint reflects the sun's rays, while dark colours absorb. (Yes, I'm a wine geek.)
Again, I'm not insisting it was entirely your fault. I'm just guessing, because I learned my lesson the hard way during a Napa Valley heat wave many years ago.
Incidentally, it doesn't necessarily mean your wine was completely spoiled. But often a bottle that's suffered heatstroke will taste "cooked," which is to say more prune-like than it should. Had I been in your position, I might have saved the wine and cellared it for, say, six to eight years maximum, not the usual 15 that can turn a fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the southern region named after the 14th-century French home of the papacy – into potable bliss. But there's no use crying over spilled Châteauneuf. At least you got to drink it, and the mishap is a notch on your wine-education belt, a story you can tell at dinner parties. Consider it your wine-geek baptism at the hands of a "pope."
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