It looks like an elongated spinning top made of glass, mounted in a metre-high cabinet made of Australian eucalyptus wood. A strange sight on display at Toronto's Summerhill liquor store, the Penfolds Ampoule has been drawing quizzical stares for the past two weeks for something other than looks. At $168,000, it is the most expensive bottle of wine ever produced.
Or, rather, it is tied for that distinction with 11 other limited-edition Ampoules made by the Australian company. The first was purchased by flamboyant Hong Kong restaurateur Wong Wing Chee of Dragon Seal Restaurant, a Cantonese-dining temple on the 101st floor of the International Commerce Centre, where it sits behind bullet-proof glass. An anonymous buyer snapped up another in Singapore. If this country's one and only allocation fails to sell before month's end, it will be offered for sale in another market.
And some of us thought the fine-wine market couldn't get sillier than the overpriced 2010 Bordeaux futures. But to Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago, the Ampoule is no mere emblem of nouveau-riche excess. Modelled after a plumb bob, those hanging weights used by surveyors and builders to determine a vertical line, it is, he says, a time capsule and important chemistry experiment. "I'm hoping these will last for hundreds of years [even if] I won't be around to open them," he told me on a recent Toronto visit.
Gago expects the package to provide clues to future generations about how fine wine evolves long-term in the absence of air. To that end, the company held back Ampoule No. 1 in its museum in Adelaide. He says it's a proven fact that fine wine can – contrary to popular belief – evolve in interesting ways in an anaerobic environment, albeit more slowly than under porous cork. Not even screw caps provide a perfect defence against long-term corrosion from oxygen. And cork, a tree bark, has its infamous problems. It tends to permit too much air ingress over the very long haul and eventually begins to disintegrate, sometimes with only a few decades in the cellar. Worse, even in the short term, it can impart off-flavours because of a random fungal-borne taint. "Glass everyone trusts," Gago said.
Granted, it doesn't take six figures' worth of flashy artist-crafted glass, precious-metal detailing and jarrah-wood cabinetry to achieve that all-glass seal. But strip away the luxe exterior and the cylindrical ampoule embedded within the plumb bob and it is still considerably pricier than your average wine bottle or hip flask.
Essentially it's a giant, 750-millilitre version of one of those tiny vials used to store pharmaceuticals that need to be protected from air. Gago says it had to be crafted out of laboratory-grade borosilicate glass with extreme care by scientific glass-blower Ray Leake, and not just because of its relatively large size. He says Leake's technique falls into "commercially sensitive" territory, but allows that part of the challenge involved shielding the vulnerable wine from the intense heat of glass-blowing while the tip was melted shut. After all, you don't want mulled wine inside that vial.
It would be a big shame to cook that particular liquid, too. The juice inside is Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, a massive red made from what is believed to be the world's oldest continuously producing cabernet sauvignon vineyard. Planted in the mid-1800s, the thick, gnarly plants yield an exceedingly small quantity of thick-skinned, superconcentrated berries, creating a wine more intense even than Penfolds' flagship trophy red, the $700-a-bottle Grange Shiraz. The going price for a conventional glass-and-cork bottle of the 2004 Block 42 today is about $1,500.
Gago says the ampoule project grew out of a series of other, more commercially relevant experiments taking place at Penfolds' headquarters. Prompted by the rapid rise of cork taint, a musty-smelling defect caused by a combination of poor storage and excessive use of chlorinated water by Portuguese and Spanish cork producers, Penfolds began fine-wine trials with alternative bottle designs featuring various glass-to-glass seals versus the cork or plastic-lined screw cap.
One design, for example, resembles those press-and-turn prescription-medicine bottles, but with a twist. The contact surfaces on both bottle and top are made of glass that's been polished with the help of an optical-density machine to create a perfectly flat, airtight seal. "You get that true glass-to-glass seal," he said. Another design features a screw cap with a glass, rather than synthetic, liner. Still another uses a thin film of natural grape oil between two glass surfaces.
Those trials, still too young to provide insightful results, are running in tandem with tests of conventional synthetic-lined screw caps. I confessed to Gago that all this fuss over long-haul cellaring seems superfluous to me. Who besides a flamboyant restaurateur or ridiculously obsessive collector would see the point of a flashy ampoule designed to preserve wine for centuries?
That's when he turned philosophical, drawing a parallel between the greatest wines ever made and other emblems of human achievement that merit preservation, like, say works of art. "Maybe it's an indulgence, but maybe it's something that countries or governments should be doing, time-capsuling these wines," he said. "I don't know, it's just nice to know it can be done."
He cited 1900 Chateaux Margaux, reputed to be one of the dozen greatest wines of the past century along with 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc and 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle. Imagine the French president expectantly opening a bottle of that century-old Margaux at a state dinner only to find it excessively oxidized or musty because of a bad cork, he said. Imagine, on the other hand, being able to confidently crack open a pristine ampoule 300 years later.
"Twelve ampoules in the world of wine is not even half a drop of half a drop in the Pacific Ocean in the way of an impact, but it's got people thinking," he said.
The Flavour Principle, a new cookbook and drinks compendium by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, is in bookstores everywhere. Published by HarperCollins.