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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
08/01/2012
Wednesday Wanderings
Put a Cork in It!

By Stephen Eliot

I confess that I have never been a fan of the screwcap, aka Stelvin, closures that have become so prevalent over the last half-dozen or so years. I appreciate that they afforded a needed alternative to cork when problems with TCA became epidemic, but, even then, I never quite trusted the plastic-lined, thin-metal screwcaps. I could reluctantly accept them as being superior to plastic “corks” that failed to seal completely or, even worse, imparted a sickly sweet quality to the wine, but I missed the familiar and ritual “pop” of a real cork that announced that something good was imminent.

I wondered early on about long-term viability and just how wines would hold up when bottled under anything but cork, and, while I readily defended them as entirely reasonable closures for inexpensive wines meant to be drunk within a year or two of vintage, it did not take too long to see that there was a significantly higher number of wines bottled under screwcaps that showed problems with excessive sulfites and reduction. I figured a little forgiveness was deserved in the first years as “new” always comes with its own set of lessons to be learned, but screwcaps are not new, and our recent tastings of new Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings have seen far too many chemically-challenged wines bottled under screwcaps. There have been enough, in fact, that I find myself feeling a little skeptical at the very sight of them now.

I am aware that their champions are armed with science and statistics that tout their benefits, and I know that the matchsticky intrusions of sulphur dioxide are to be blamed on winemakers and not the screwcap itself. Still, experience is the best teacher of all, and my trepidations are not born out of thin air.

It seems that I am not alone in my unease with screw caps, and last week yet another important Australian producer announced that they would be abandoning screwcap closures in favor of cork. Rusden Wines has joined other producers from down under in embracing cork as the best way to go for reasons having to do entirely with technical performance. They are not the first, and I am certain that they will not be the last.

Screwcaps are cheaper: I get that, but they are not better, and I have come to believe that they are not as good as real cork. They are not defensible with respect to performance, sustainability or recycling. I expect that they are here to stay given their very low cost, but until circumstances appreciably change, I am more than willing to spend a few extra pennies to hear the comforting sound of a real cork being pulled from the bottle.


 

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Comments

Defense of the screw cap
by Peter Spann
Posted on:8/1/2012 6:46:08 PM

I've been in wine sales and marketing for over 40 years and a constant frustration in sales has been taking the time to line up appointments with accounts that I considered a particular wine to be perfect for, only to open it, sniff it and find out that it had a TCA problem.  No time to return to the warehouse for another bottle, appointments blown, day ruined. I usually took out 6 wines a day and it seemed that about 1 out of 12 was corked.  I considered well made screw cap closures and synthetics a Godsend.  No more disappointments, no more blown sales calls.  I don't open as many wines as you but have never experienced the off aromas you described.  Perhaps the problems are either with the wine producer or the closure manufacturer.  We've been bottling all the whites at our winery with Stelvin closures since 2005 with no problems.  Synthetics are bad for whites as they absorb free sulphur and the wine oxidizes quickly but we've experienced no problems with synthetics (from Neocork) with reds - and in 9 years on the market have only had 2 bottles returned as being "off".  Approximately 264,000 bottles sold over 9 years and only 2 returned - I'm very happy with these results.  If we had bottled everything with natural cork I think we would have any infininately more bottles returned and more disappointed customers.

Capped
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:8/1/2012 11:52:39 PM

We have a term at the shop when we open a screwcap wine and find those stinky aromas, we call the wine, "Screcapped"...the one upside, it often blows off, TCA, not so much.

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:8/2/2012 2:18:17 PM

If you had tasted the 2002 Wolf Blass "Gold Label" Cabernet under screwcap next to the same wine under cork, as i did last weekend, you would have thought they were from two diffeent countries, demanded your money back, and rewritten this post. The scary thing is you can tell the difference between the two closures after six months.

I find myself in agreement with you on many of your writings but sorry mate--have to disagree with you about this one.

%s?
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:8/3/2012 12:43:21 PM

Stephen,

I am afraid I disagree with you as well....as we have spent some time (and money) doing side by side trials on our own wines, and definitely prefer twist offs to cork.

You mention chemically flawed bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Rieslings that you recently tasted.  Would you mind sharing how many of those you encountered, and how many were under screwcap vs. cork?

Thanks,

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

"Stinky aromas" and burning finishes...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:8/3/2012 1:30:47 PM

Adam and Chuck, while I fully admit that any "failings" of screwcap closures are more likely the fault of haphazard winemaking than the closure itself, but we have seen enough bottlings whose acrid, matchsticky elements make them hard to enjoy. While there is merit to Samantha's comment above that some do improve with air, that is not always the case, and I am not sure just how many people have the patience to wait for those "stinky aromas" to disappear.

I do not have hard numbers as to the percentage of offending bottles relative to those sealed with cork, but I'll start keeping count in the interest of better defining what I perceive to be a problem. One thing for certain, however, is that we have seen a significant decline in issues with TCA among those bottled under cork over the last several years. We open several hundred bottles each month, and I would have to say that perceptible TCA is a problem in no more than 1% at the most. Reductive screwcap offerings appear at a much higher frequency. I would remind, too, that Rusden's and other's decsisions to return to cork also came after study and expense.

And yes, Chuck, I have had some remarkable Australian wines that have gaed wonderfully well under screwcaps, but the sneezes and congested noses that we have suffered from too much of the local stuff of late are real.

Thank you for your comments and questions. I expect that the debate will continue.

No Subject
by Peter Rosback
Posted on:8/3/2012 6:00:00 PM

Stephen,

Another disagreement here.  It's good to hear that TCA is getting down into the 1% range.  Still, as someone pointed out to me, if 1% of the planes flying into O'Hare airport crashed every day, that would be 180 planes a day.  None of us would fly anywhere.  Why does our industry put up with such a miserable failure rate?  What other industry would allow packaging - packaging, which is all cork is - to ruin 1% of its production?

 

Peter Rosback  Sineann

No Subject
by Jason Webster
Posted on:8/6/2012 10:01:13 AM

Peter,

 

Comparing a 1% failure rate in cork to 1% failure rate in aircraft is slightly absurd. Do B students (80-89%) make the right choice 80% of the time? Do farms ever ship sub-par produce to supermarkets? 

 

Corks are not perfect, but they've exponentially improved over the last decade with scientific quality control parameters. That said though, it's still annoying to open a bottle and finding that telltale aroma.

Fortunately wine producers have the choice to pick the closure that they feel is best for their wine. Of course, that all takes second chair to what your consumer thinks.

Honestly, your wine faces its biggest risk in transit to its destination. 

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:8/6/2012 10:34:32 AM

I have to take responsibility for the O'Hare comment made by Peter Rosback as it is a reference I make on a regular basis about how people in the wine business accept failure rates that are much higher than those of other industries. It is simply unacceptable for consumers to be subjected to the amount of corked wines at levels that would condemn other products or industries to financial ruin. Airplanes, computers, medical devices along with many food products find that rate of failure too high. The wine industry can easily reduce its failure rate if it chooses but instead we foist upon consumers the notion that 1% failure is acceptable and part of the romance of wine. This is to say nothing of the fact that the other 99% of wines will vary widely from fresh and acceptable to muted and dull so that the consumer never gets a consistent product. This is plain and utter hogwash and shows an absolute disregard for the consumer. Knowingly selling defective products at such a rate is a class action lawsuit waiting to happen and threatens the entire wine industry. Rationalizing the fact that some wine is defective does little to bolster the credibility of the wine industry in the minds of consumers and is a path we should not follow.

Rusden's Change of Closure
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:8/7/2012 3:32:48 PM

And by the way, the so called "important Australian producer", a great guy, makes ten wines but only one was in screwcap and this was for about five years or so. Hardly a massive change as the cork company PR agents made it out to be.....

 

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