Closure Debate is Ongoing

Nov 21, 2012 No Comments by

Even though the wine bottle screw cap had been around for a while I did not see it enter into the realm of fine wine until the mid-1990’s.  This was a period when cork closures were presenting more problems than anyone in the business ever remembered mostly due to the increased demand for wine, particularly red wines, that occurred after “60 Minutes” aired “The French Paradox”, which among other things touted the benefits of daily wine consumption.  And at the time, cork-finished wines were perceived to be better, more natural.  One particular extremely large producer from one vintage to the next converted millions of bottles within its vast portfolio from screwcap to cork closures and that one move, as I was told by an industry insider,  so taxed the cork industry that it could not keep up with the demand for so-called, “quality corks”.  We were seeing more and more  ”cork taint”, the musty odor caused by the chemical trichloroanisole (TCA) that also masks the charm of a fine wine.

As you probably know, cork closures come from the Mediterranean area, mostly Spain, Portugal, and Northern Africa and sourced from the Quercus suber (a type of oak).  Evidently, the tree must grow 25 years for the first harvest, and another eight to 14 years until the next bark has been formed which is not good enough for corks until the third harvest.  Whoa, that is a long time!  But there are about 5 million acres of these trees using carbon dioxide and do not require a lot of water.  Cork is especially good as wine closure because of its impermeability and elasticity, and besides in spite of the timing of the harvests, it is a renewable resource.

But with the increased occurrence of corked bottles (at one tasting I did in 1993, of the 100 bottles opened, 14 were corked!), many alternative closures were utilized by wineries around the world  (notably screwcap, synthetics, plastic-glass caps, and even something called, the Zork, ) and according to a recent article I read on Reuters on line, “the cork business plummeted”. But change is a brewing, or maybe better said, fermenting…Reuters also reported that “now the traditional cork business has recovered, rescued by unlikely saviors: cutting-edge laboratory researchers in white coats who are demonstrating why nature’s stopper may still be one of the best ways of preserving and serving bottled wine.”  And in some of the world’s most famous wine areas regulations prohibit the use of alternative wine closures.

However, the wine buying population have embraced alternatives big time, especially the screwcap.  Back in 2000 I predicted that every wine retailing under $20 would be Stelvin-finished (a premium type of screwcap) within 10 years.  I see now that my prediction has very nearly come true as we see more and more wines we bring into our market arriving with Stelvin closures.  And our customers don’t seem to mind, in fact, nobody complains, and people I talk to at public tastings tell me they prefer screwcaps above all others.

There have been many experiments on these alternative closures, the most notable I read about recently by Bordeaux first-growth Chateau Margaux cited recently in various journals including The Drinks Business and The Wall Street Journal.  It seems that managing director Paul Pontallier reports Margaux has been examining the age-ability of its wines sealed with various closures.  Those sealed with synthetic closure were “”absolutely catastrophic,”  he stated after tasting the 2003 Margaux, it was the wine under natural cork that was the “youngest and freshest”, but concluded that the wine aged under “impermeable screwcap was probably my preferred because I find the mouth softer.”  But he also stated that the company  wants to see how the wines evolve and compare them again after another 5-10 years. “Our number one priority is to make the best possible wine, and if screwcap is better, then I don’t know how we could resist the temptation to change.”  When I made my prediction back in 2000, I never would have expected this kind of revolution in the world of wine closures.

But some producers are switching back to natural cork after trying Stelvin for a number of vintages.  The other day I read of an Australian vintner, Christian Canute of Rusden, that “wasn’t happy with how the wines bottled under screwcap had been aging,” he says. “Our wines are handmade and bottled without fining or filtration, and under a screwcap I have noticed the wines seem to sweat – producing overly dominant reductive characters, a problem we have never had under cork.”  But he is concerned if his customers will accept the flip-flop.

As for myself, while I love the charm of pulling the cork, the ease of opening a Stelvin-finished bottle is sometimes preferred especially as the evening wears on.

So what do you think?  Which closures do you prefer?  Maybe you agree with Canute who stated, “Any winemaker should be able to have the choice of using the closure they see as best for their product without negativity surrounding their decision.”

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About the author

Michael Brown has been a Portfolio Manager for Vintner Select since 2010, a fine wine importer and tri-state distributor, Michael has extensive knowledge about wine that started while working at a local winery when he was finishing his degree in philosophy from Xavier University in Cincinnati.  He went on to work for a wine bar in Chicago before training as a chef, first at the noteworthy Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and later in Paris, France, at a few restaurants under top-rated chefs.  He has worked in the wine business full time since 1991 and has traveled extensively through the wine areas of France, Italy, California, Oregon and Washington State. Certified as a Specialist in Wine (CSW) by the Society of Wine Educators, he has also passed the first stage of the Master Sommelier exams.
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