Yesterday, I bought 2 bottles of wine with a screw top. Don’t judge! The opening procedure was quite unorthodox and far from being romantic. The scratchy, metallic sound approximating that of a bottle of soda being opened was quite unusual. I was opening a bottle of wine by “twisting the cap”… how weird!! I suppose I shouldn’t be so crude about this aluminum shard. Modern wine screw caps are highly engineered pieces of packaging technology, developed over many years to do the job that corks seem to do only “imperfectly”. That job is quite simple: to keep the wine inside the bottle and to seal out the air. For a while, some tried to turn cork’s deficient sealing capability into a strength, arguing that a slight amount of air exchange is necessary for aging. However, it is now generally agreed that wine is naturally bottled with enough air dissolved in the liquid to permit it to mellow with age.
So back to the wine! With a Wilfred Wong Rating of 92 points, the wine wasn’t bad, and not cheap. Some of the most notorious winemakers have decided to chuck corks entirely and go with screw tops or synthetic corks even for their best wines; for example Meoimi Pinot and Conundrum, both owned by the renowned Caymus winery. Another good example is one of my all-time favorite Petite Sirah called Spellbound. Why are they moving away from the well adopted, conventional natural cork? … Efficiency? Cost? Practicality? Environment? Let’s find out, shall we…
The Portuguese Cork Association, known by the acronym APCOR, estimates 7 percent to 8 percent of the wine market — up from past years — now uses non-cork closures, including plastic stoppers and screw caps. Despite the historic and romantic allure of a cork in a wine bottle, wine producers are increasingly frustrated by the belief that cork sometimes ruins their wine. Fed up with tainted corks ruining some of their finest bottles, eager to reach more consumers, and inspired by studies out of Australia and California suggesting the screw cap offers better quality control for some wines, wineries are contemplating ditching corks for the easy-off tops.
So how does the wine get bad you might ask…? Corked wine – “bouchonné” as the French people say – tastes and smells like a damp piece of cardboard, dust or worse. The problem is coming from a chemical component called TCA (Trichloroanisole for the chemists). This molecule is generated by mold when put in contact with chlorine. We could simply stay away from all public swimming pools, except one of the most important aspect of fabrication requires the cork to be washed with a bleach solution, which contains chlorine. This is quite a conundrum!
How bad is it? 1 gramme (0.03 ounces) of TCA can contaminate 200 million bottles of wine! So one could say, it is pretty bad.
Solutions: Cork manufacturers are actively working on solutions for our winemaker friends. That said the answer might be coming from the “Commissariat à l’énergie atomique”, or CEA (Atomic Energy Commission). The CEA is a French public establishment related to industrial and commercial activities whose mission is to develop all applications of nuclear power. Huh? I know, it sounds scary but don’t worry, they have no intention to blast cork with a bunch of atoms. They put together a technique that allows cork to be washed with carbon dioxide! This technological breakthrough has been in place since 2000. It is currently being tested for endurance.
Screw caps and synthetic corks have their own problems. They can be prone to another aroma taint called sulphidisation, which arises from the reduced oxygen supply which concentrates sulphurous smells produced by preservatives. The annual International Wine Challenge event tested tens of thousands of wines from around the world including around 9,000 with screw caps. It found 2.2% of screw top bottles suffered from sulphidisation and other problems connected with the wine not breathing. Also called reduction, this disadvantage is the opposite of oxidation (maderization). It suppresses a wine’s aroma and causes unpleasant ones, like that of rotten eggs. Furthermore there is the global public image in which consumers still perceive screw caps as being for ‘cheap’ wines, regardless of the price tag.
Nothing is perfect but the human nature is very forgiving. So what if you get a bad bottle… the winemaker will go out of his way to replace it and make it up to you. There’s hope for our all natural corks. Stopping the production of corks would have a detrimental effect on nature and the local ecological system. Oak cork forests (montados in portuguese) play an important part to the preservation of bioversity. We find protected animal species like the Iberian lynx and the imperial eagle. Those forested areas regulate the hydrological cycles, protect the soils and carbon dioxide consumption.
Natural vs. plastic cork production is an endless polemic subject. Some organizations are actively fighting against the production of synthetic corks and screw tops. “Save Miguel” is an international campaign starring Hollywood actor Rob Schneider and developed by Corticeira Amorim. Watch a funny video featuring comedian Rob Schneider, produced specifically to defend natural cork and to appeal to the protection and preservation of cork oak forests.
Regardless of your beliefs and convictions on the subject, natural cork is by far THE best solution for wines destined for aging. To all the naysayers and skeptical people, I have one thing to say: “Put a cork in it!”
Did you miss the previous part? Learn where cork comes from in Part 1 of this article.