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THURSDAY THORNS
03/10/2016
An Unabashedly Kind Word About Cork—The Real Cork

By Charles Olken

One of the big advantages that I hold within the wine community is that I frequently have no dog in the many real and imaginary kerfuffles that occupy so much of the commentary in the wine press. Sure, I will defend tasting notes when done right, and I think ours are done right, and CGCW does use the 100-point system because most folks who read tasting notes want not just words and stories but also judgment.

The ongoing debate about how to “close” a wine bottle is such a topic. Practitioners tend to feel strongly about the subject yet mostly rely on anecdotal evidence and personal preference to prove their points. For years, the overwhelming choice for the closure of fancy wines, of the type that CGCW reviews and our readers put in their cellars, have been corks.

I know a thing or two about cork, but admittedly probably not three or four things. I know, for example, that a long, clean cork costs somewhere close to a dollar per while the metal screwcaps cost less than twenty cents. That is why, despite my personal preference (there, I have said it) for cork closures, I have no bitch with large production wineries that choose to close thousands, even hundreds of thousands of early-drinking bottles with screw caps. And I know that corks are different one to another so there is some variance. In fact, my first practical lessons in corks came at the very beginning of my writing career when I sat with the late Louis M. Martini discussing his five Special Selection Cabernets from the 1968 vintage. “How long do you think they will last?” I asked. To which Mr. Martini responded, “It all depends on the corks. When an old wine has stood the test of time, it is the cork that has made that possible’.

Just the other day, I attended a New Zealand wine seminar here in San Francisco, and given my strong interest in Sauvignon Blanc, I concentrated my focus there despite the admitted allure of the top Pinots coming out of the Central Otago region. As a side note, I can tell you that CGCW is now collecting a batch of NZ Sauvignons for a review of said wines in the summer when their brisk, bright character is so welcome.

Admittedly, most of the Sauvignon Blancs being poured were sealed with screw caps, but there were a few honest to goodness cork closures also on the table, and the mix of choice led to a discussion which I found as reassuring as it was informative. In fact, for me, it was the reassurance that several Kiwi wineries have gone back to cork to close their best (most expensive) bottlings that caused me to stop in my sampling of the several dozens of available wines and to stick my “ear” in to get a feel for the nature of the arguments both for and against cork.

There are many, but for me, it all boiled down to the notion that wines likely to wind up in the cellar for more than a brief stay seemed, to the wineries that had changed back to cork, to age more consistently and to acquire the richness and suppleness that age can bring. Admittedly, I do not buy wine for closure but for quality, and I am sure as sure can be that there are many older wines under screw cap that have aged perfectly well. I have some.

But, I have an old cellar at this point, having started my collection more than four decades ago, and when I pull out a four decades old Beaulieu Private Reserve Cabernet or Joseph Swan Zinfandel or Chalone Pinot Noir and it delivers near ethereal character, I am very likely to point to the cork and say thank you. That a number of New Zealand winemakers, who were among the first to adopt the screw cap, are returning to cork for their leading wines is reassuring in the first place, but it also brings a small smile to my face because I like cork-preserved wines for emotional and at least partly irrational reasons.


 

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Comments

Corks
by larry schaffer
Posted on:3/14/2016 3:37:54 PM

A few brief comments:

1) Screwcaps have NOT become popular because of cost issues, my friend. Look at 2 Buck Chuck - is THAT bottled under screw cap? Nope - because there are cheaper alternatives . . .

2) It makes no sense for NZ producers to use corks to get a more 'consistent' product down the line - corks are notoriously inconsistent.

3) You can have your cork finished wines for 'emotional and partly irrational reasons', but neither these reasons nor 'tradition' or 'pomp and circumstance' will make up for wines affected by TCA or random oxidation.

Cheers!

Corks
by Leonardo Ricardez
Posted on:3/15/2016 1:57:34 PM

This: “How long do you think they will last?” I asked. To which Mr. Martini responded, “It all depends on the corks. When an old wine has stood the test of time, it is the cork that has made that possible’.... is a very sad statement. very sad. that the fate of your wine is decided by a piece of bark. That after so many years of investment and patient aging, its up to a piece of bark wether a wine is drinkable or not, that's very sad. 

 


The Truth About Corks... Again
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:3/17/2016 11:20:28 AM

I have been fortunate to know a bit too much about the screwcap-cork debate as well as the use of screwcaps in the NZ/Australian wine industry due to my long-term involvement with the wines of those countries so I am compelled to add a few comments. 

First, I was at the seminar that you attended and I was aghast at the number of cork-finished wines presented. The presence of so many wines bottled with cork (I beleive 3-4 out of 12) might communicate to someone new to the NZ wine category that corks are back (not you Charlie!). Not the message I would like to be associated with and I think most NZ wineries would agree.

A few things to note. Of the cork-finished wines presented, they were originally bottles under cork when first produced and have remained so. They were not screwcapped in the past and then recently reverted to cork. Second, many NZ wineries continue to use corks not for the benefits that they supposedly contribute to a wine but because many export markets, especially in Asia, believe screwcaps are only used for lesser quality wines. Finally, I have tasted numerous bottles and vintages from the wineries that were on show that day and I can say unequivocally that many of them were either corked, cork-affected and/or variable. Consistency, from bottle to bottle, is the last word I would apply to wines finished with cork and I have seen that with many of the wines I have tasted over the years from the estates at that event.

Most importantly, the argument that wines do not age under screwcap or that a wine under cork will be superior to one with a cap over time just does hold water when tasting verticals of NZ wines under cap or when comparing the same wine and vintage under cap and cork. Time and time again, those theories are tossed aside when these comparisons are done. The problem is you have to visit NZ wineries to do these tastings. Until wineries do this in the US, the myth that wines under cork are superior for some reason or another will persist. And once these comparative tastings are done, bloggers and other members of the trade will have no other choice than to write the final piece settling this argument once and for all and start to write about more pressing issues surrounding the wine industry. Like the use of the 100 point scale.....

Aghast? Better Than Being Gassed
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/17/2016 11:35:18 AM

Hi Chuck--

Always a happy day when you brighten it with your presence.

I believe it was Sam Weaver, although my memory may be faulty on this because I am not nearly as familiar with the NZ producers as you, who commented that he saved money by using screwcaps.

I see nothing wrong with the proper use of screwcaps just as I see nothing wrong with the use of clean corks. I just happen to prefer corks for my long-aged wines.

I am waiting for longeitudinal studies with screwcaps versus cork for extensively cellared claret-styled and Rhone reds as well as Chardonnays that will age for a decade and more. I made this point to the Diam people as well. Dont tell me about your theories. Do the studies and show the world the proof.

And, Chuck, I have long ago given up on trying to convince folks one way or the other about the 100-point scale. It is the lingua franca of wine evaluation and while CGCW reluctantly started to use it, I have yet to see our subscribers rushing to the exits over that issue.

Other than that, I am happy to report that we are amassing a collection of NZ Sauv Blancs for review because the notion that they are all alike (bristling acidity and pungent character) is rather far from the truth. There are many balanced versions, and those wines have long been among our personal choices for first course wines.

 

Australian Wine Research Institute study
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/22/2016 2:22:50 AM

From 30 Second Wine Advisor

(published April 16, 2010):

"One picture, 1,000 words"

Link: http://www.wineloverspage.com/wlp_archive/wineadvisor2/2010/04/one_picture_1000_words-print.html

Australian Wine Research Institute study
by Bob Henry
Posted on:3/22/2016 2:23:59 AM

-- AND --

From Ponte winery website:

"To Screw(cap) or Not to Screw(cap), That is the Question"

Link: http://blog.pontewinery.com/to-screwcap-or-not-to-screwcap-that-is-the-question/


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