Ah, Coravin. I want to believe, I really do. Convince me.
A wonderful opportunity arose here in Germany a month ago: to become an independent tester for Coravin. From all the applicants (a detailed application was required, including how the successful applicant would increase awareness of the Coravin sytem) 32 would be selected. These 32 testers would be sent one of three different models of the device. The only request? Test it as much as possible and share those tests on social media. Positive and negative experiences. Excellent.
Who could say no? I applied. And I was completely forthcoming about the fact that, two years ago, while preparing for my WSET Diploma exams, I had received a Coravin from my family as a gift to help with my tasting practice. That experience ended unhappily, and the device was returned. Despite this, and to the great credit of Coravin, I was chosen as one of the testers – and received my Model Two Elite just a couple weeks afterwards.
The word “revolutionary” is thrown around far, far too often – particularly by marketing people. So much so, in fact, that the word has become essentially meaningless. Nevertheless, if ever there was a device that had the potential to revolutionise the way we wine drinkers consume our beloved beverage, it is the Coravin. Other such developments would be, for example, the bottle. The cork. Perhaps the Bag-in-Box (the prosaic German word for this is “Weinschlauch”, which translates literally, and delightfully, to “wine hose”). Certainly the screwcap and the refrigerator-like Wine Cabinet, which stores your wine in perfect cellar conditions without the necessity of actually having a cellar, would fall into this category as well. As you can see, such truly revolutionary developments on the consumer side of the wine industry are relatively few and far between. But now, and for the past few years already, we have the Coravin.
If you aren’t aware of what the device is or how it works, please allow me to briefly fill you in.
The Coravin System
The whole idea behind the device is to allow the user to enjoy a taste, or even a glass, from a bottle of wine without removing the cork. The really cool part is that the wine removed is replaced with a non-reactive gas – Argon, in this case – so that the wine remaining in the bottle will not become oxidised, thus, theoretically, allowing the wine in the bottle to continue ageing normally – at least as long as you feel that wine ages more or less the same regardless of the concentration of Oxygen relative to the contents of the bottle. This feat is accomplished with a clever device outfitted with a needle that is plunged all the way through the cork. The needle is very much like the hypodermic needles used by healthcare professionals around the world, inasmuch as it is hollow and made from surgical steel. This allows the Argon to flow from the cartridge in the base of the device, through the needle and into the bottle, displacing the wine, which then flows back through the needle into the device, and then into your glass. The similarity to a hypodermic is no accident; Coravin’s founder (and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Greg Lambrecht, had a background creating devices for the medical industry before creating the Coravin system.
Since establishing the system, there have been several useful add-ons: the fine needle (smaller bore) for delicate corks, which would make it useful for older wines and their more delicate closures; the aerator, designed to allow pours of wines that require significant aeration – since a decanter would be pointless when one is pouring only a glass or even just a taste; and the screwcap closure, which replaces the screwcap that comes with your wine and permits use of the Coravin system.
The original device was called the “Model Eight” for some reason. Since the newer lineup (including the Model One, Model Two and Model Two Elite) has taken the stage, there is also a new needle design – one which permits a faster pour. The device itself has also undergone cosmetic changes, though the design and functionality remains the same. Now, there are a couple of different models available in a diverse array of colours and finishes, with the higher-end “Model Two Elite” occupying the most elegant and beautiful slot in the lineup, with its high-gloss or matte finish, chrome detailing and metal parts. Price ranges from €199.00 for the Model One to €349.99 for the Model Two Elite.
So much for the design and the function. What about the pros and the cons?
The advantages are clear, and can easily be divided into three areas:
- Private User: you can test or drink some wine from your precious cellar without having to finish the bottle. This means you don’t have to worry about whether you want to finish a whole bottle – and if the wine you accessed turns out to be too young for your tastes, you can leave it there to age further.
- Restaurant or Wine Bar: the system opens up possibilities for per-glass sales that would be unthinkable otherwise – and the savings on costs and space in comparison to cabinet-style wine dispensers like those of Winekeeper™ or Enomatic™ are huge, not to mention that the range of wines that can be put into the mix is limited only by whatever you have in your cellar, instead of how many bottles the cabinet can hold.
- Professional taster: vertical or horizontal tastings, comparisons of vintage, region, grape, etc. can be done using the same sample bottles repeatedly. This is enormously attractive to somebody like me. I have dozens of such tastings planned with this device already, and I’ve only had it a couple weeks.
Downside? Well, there is an obvious one – at least for the private user:
- Cost: the cost of the system already puts it out of the range of consideration for the occasional drinker (although it is precisely those drinkers who might benefit most from such a product). Then there are all those add-ons, and the cartridges themselves aren’t cheap. In fact, Coravin themselves say that a cartridge is good for up to 15 150 mL pours. Since the cost of a cartridge starts at €8.50, that means that you will be paying at least 60 cents for every glass of wine you pour – on top of the price of the bottle, naturally.
Then there are practical downsides:
- Sparkling wines can not (currently) be accessed – but Coravin is committed to developing a closure that will work as soon as possible
- Only natural corks (and this includes composite ones) can be accessed – so no Vinolok glass closures, no synthetic corks. Up until recently screwcaps were also a no-go, but Coravin has now developed closures that will allow the system to work with wines under screwcap. I don’t have them, so I can’t report on them.
Last are the potential and/or theoretical downsides. But these are the most significant:
- Oxidation: yes, the whole idea of the system is to prevent this – yet it continues to be a problem, though mostly due to improper use of the system. Mostly, but not entirely; sometimes the cork itself is to blame. What are you gonna do?
- Bottle breakage: Coravin sends a special sleeve that is to be put around the bottle in order to prevent injury should the bottle break while being accessed. The system works with pressurized gas, so it is conceivable that a defective bottle could break. Nevertheless, this smacks of American paranoia (warranted or not) with regards to litigation – I’ve certainly never even heard of this actually happening.
- Long-term Ageing: this is a point that I feel requires greater investigation – and one that I am, sadly, not prepared to investigate myself. If we accept that the oxygen within a bottle is essential for the ageing of a fine wine, then we must also accept that changing the amount of that oxygen relative to the wine – or even preventing it from touching the wine over a long period – will have an effect on the ageing trajectory or potential of the wine. Replacing wine in a sealed bottle with Argon is clearly changing the ratio, not to mention that the whole point of the Argon, which is heavier than normal air (composed mostly of Nitrogen and Oxygen) is to prevent Oxygen from coming into contact with the wine.
So much for the main, more obvious advantages and disadvantages. But I feel that there might be another problem:
Argon is a noble gas, which means it is non-reactive. It is odourless, tasteless and colourless. These qualities make it perfect for use in the conservation of many things, from old documents to your wine. And yet…in my previous experience with Coravin, I noticed a peculiar development in some of the wines over time. Sometimes they developed a sharp, even acrid chemical smell and flavour. Different wines were affected to a different degree, with some showing no trace and others being completely undrinkable. It was not the taste of oxidation – one really does become quite familiar with the effects of oxidation on wine after a while. No, this was something completely different, and something I had not experienced before. What’s more, once I became sensitive to it and started looking for it, I began noticing it occasionally in wines that had been poured from the Enomatic™ system, which also uses Argon gas to protect the wines.
I do not know how (though I have a lengthy hypothesis which I will share at the end of the test period, should I be unconvinced by the system), but I feel the Argon might be having an effect – either on the wine or on my perception of it. In order to see of I was deluding myself, I started doing blind tests with willing staff members at several high-end retailers in Switzerland that carried the Coravin system and also used the Enomatic™ to see if I could identify wines that had been subjected to Argon preservation when compared with the same wine that had not been exposed to it.
My success rate was around 75%.
It IS possible that there is something else at work, here, with poorly-schooled staff using the Coravin improperly (this is a legitimate concern, as it can lead to oxidation of the wine, for example) or something similar, but it was enough for me to send my original Coravin system back; after ruining several lovely bottles, I was unwilling to take the risk of ruining another wine, and so it was not useful to me. As far as this Coravin test period is concerned, I am optimistic that my previous experience may not have been as a result of the system itself. Only time will tell.
Onward to the tests!
The tests are underway. As mentioned above, the system is extremely appealing to a professional taster like myself – and I am taking advantage of it. I am using the Coravin on literally dozens of wines, testing out a variety of conditions, styles of wine and so on. Tasting flights from the same grape of different producers, horizontal and vertical tastings from regions, producers and grapes. Every wine will be accessed at least twice with the Coravin, with a week or two between tastings. At the end, the wines will be uncorked and the wines tasted and compared with the tasting notes from before. A few of the wines will be compared with fresh bottles that have not been exposed to Argon. Most of these rounds of testing will find their way onto this blog, and will be clearly marked as Coravin tests. If problems crop up, I’ll be writing about them. At the end, I’ll be presenting my assessment of the system – for better or worse (or, more than likely, both). Direct links to the tests will be added below as they take place.
To the tests!