A New Twist On Fine Wine
Wednesday - October 05, 2005
The mood for a romantic evening is set. The table is decorated with crisp, white linen and a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers. From the kitchen comes the irresistible smell of roasting garlic and baking bread and, as you pull out two Riedel crystal glasses to toast the evening, the silence is broken only by the snapping of a screw cap as you twist it from the wine bottle.
It just doesn’t have the same ring as “the pop of a champagne cork,” does it? But love them or hate them, screw caps are here to stay. Of course, there’s no romance in twisting off a bottle top, but wine clad in a metal or synthetic top has a better chance of staying the way the winemaker intended than wines topped with cork. In a surprising statistic that may well be on the low side, up to 8 percent of wines are corked -by that we mean they suffer the indignity of having been spoiled by oxidation from corks that let in air. For many people, a bad bottle of wine becomes something they associate with the winemaker, and choose never to return to that winery again. For others, it’s simply a waste of money. But with more than 80 percent of wines bought today for consumption within 24 hours, does it really make sense to use cork, when screw caps and synthetic corks work better? In a study done by Hogue Cellars, a notable panel proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that screw caps and synthetics work best. They preserve the fruit forwardness of wines, avoid oxidation and maintain freshness more effectively than natural cork. But is the stigma attached to the screw cap too much to overcome?
“Not really,” says Warren Shon, vice president of Southern Wines and Spirits in Hawaii, and distributor of some of the finest wines in the state. “There are really some very fine quality wineries using screw caps today. Most of the white wines from New Zealand, for example, use them, and many quality driven producers accept that they have a positive effect on wine.” But for Shon and others who consider their own cellars as well as the wines of which they are the caretakers, the bigger question is not how well the screw tops keep flavor today - but how they will react to decades atop a great vintage.
“Because this is new technology,” he says, “there is no way of knowing how a wine will age with a screw cap.” Wines have been aged with cork for centuries and there is little doubt that a great wine needs a little air. Corks breathe. Caps don’t.
“There’s just no way of telling right now, what wines will be like in 20 or 30 years,” says Shon. “And right now the world’s great wine producers are just not ready to gamble on a great harvest.”
That’s what I love about the world of wine and spirits. You’re dealing with things that live and breathe! When the single malt scotch boom happened about seven years ago, some of the great producers simply weren’t prepared. How could distillers have predicted 18 years ago when they were laying down The Macallan, for example, that the world would want more than they had? And the wonderful thing about great whisky and world-class wine is you can’t just go out and make another one.
So expect to see more and more caps and synthetic corks on white wines and young red wines, but not on a bottle that’s meant to be aged.
“Most wines today are bought for immediate drinking,” says Shon, “that’s why when I buy wine for myself, it’s not really an issue about the screw cap because I know I’ll be consuming the wine pretty soon.”
But will our children and our grandchildren be screwing the tops of their Chateauneuf du Pape or carefully popping a cork and praying for a perfectly aged wine?
“That’s a good question,” says Warren. “Call back in about 20 years and I’ll let you know.”
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