Saying Screw It To Bad Corks

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - October 14, 2005
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They’re coming! Don’t look now, but wines bottled with Stelvin closures (screw caps to you and me) are taking over the globe - including in the top-end, multi-digit echelon.

So what do I think about wine that is bottled in screw cap vs. corks?

First, what is the most important thing about wine - the look of the bottle or the quality of the wine that’s inside? It’s the quality, of course! It doesn’t matter to me that it comes with a screw cap, in a bag or in plastic. The wine has to taste good or no one will drink it. Yes, there is a certain low-quality stigma attached to wines bottled under screw cap. But truly, it is one ill-founded. There is more and more high quality wine being bottled under screw cap every year.

How does it affect the aging of the wine? On a recent trip to Australia for the International Conference for the Court of Master Sommeliers, we did several blind tastings with wines comparing the same exact wine, one glass was from a screw cap bottle and the other was from a cork finished wine. In each case the wine that was from a screw cap bottle was as good, if not better. This especially held true with older vintages, going back to 1980 - that’s 25 years old. On top of that, we asked the servers how many bottles of the cork-finished bottles had to be opened vs. how many bottles of screw cap bottles. In one case, they opened exactly 12 screw caps vs. 18 cork-finished bottles. The reasons being that a couple bottles were “corked,” having a very musty, wet cardboard aroma caused by a bacterial taint called TCA that can be found inside cork. The others just were not up to snuff according to the winemaker. They were either oxidized or just dull. It makes sense: Cork is an agricultural product that is inconsistent; no two corks are exactly the same. Some may be more brittle or prone to bacteria, and that can eventually harm the quality of the wine.

From a producer’s perspective, think about having put a whole year’s time, effort and money into one bottle, only to have that wine spoiled by the faults of its closure. There are some wineries that have to take back up to 13 percent of their wines because of cork problems. Imagine having to refund 13 percent of your yearly sales? Or worse yet, have people taste your wine and think that all your wine tastes “funny.” I guarantee that they won’t order your wine any more.

So how do sommeliers feel about presenting wines with screw caps? My answer to that is if the sommelier or wine steward is only there to open wine, they are definitely not worth their weight in cheap wine. Yes, there may not be as much of “the show” when opening the bottle at the table, but in the case of older wines that have sediment in the bottle and wines that require some aeration, decanting is still necessary, which provides for a beautiful and elegant presentation whether it is from a screw cap bottle or cork finished. Personally, it is easier, cleaner and I have greater confidence that the wine will be just as the winemaker intended it to be.

There is still quite a bit of inertia from producers and consumers alike that are not yet convinced, especially in the “old world,” mainly Europe. “New world” countries like New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. are at the forefront of this screw cap wave. There are even several restaurants in Australia that do not purchase wine unless it is bottled with a screw cap; they’re tired of cork’s inconsistencies. But there are plenty of adventurous producers everywhere who are willing to ensure the quality of their product for their consumers. Ultimately, there will always be people who still bottle their wines with cork. It is tradition and some traditions don’t die. Still, one of my fellow Masters, fresh from a recent visit to Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the top and most expensive wines of the world, told me that the cellar master there was so frustrated with their corks that he was interested in “experimenting with screw caps. If that isn’t a sign for the future, I’ll put a cork in it.

Three wine recommendations that come in screw caps.

2003 Nine Stones, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($12) Bright, in your face, jammy fruit. Great texture and deep dark flavors. Something to have with a substantial slice of red meat.

2004 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($11) Wonderfully zesty and refreshing. Ripe tropical fruit, balance and a long aftertaste. Great with shellfish.

2004 Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay, South Australia ($18) Un-oaked Chardonnay, just pure fresh fruit with a mineral tinge. Sleek and elegant, gulpable. White fish and shrimp in a lighter sauce is a perfect match.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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