Uncorked: Are we finally fed-up with tainted wines?

One of the most frequent questions I am posed from the wine curious concerns screwcaps versus corks. It appears that the awareness of screwcaps is growing and with it the inevitable questions. My answer to the screwcap question is always; I love them. You may ask how a guy who leans fairly traditional with his drinks could embrace the screwcap over the cork. The answer is quite simple. I am tired of pouring money down my drain. Pouring money down the drain is exactly what I and countless other wine drinkers do all too often when we discover a wine to be affected by a tainted cork. On many occasions I have spent good money on a bottle of wine, aged it carefully in a temperature and humidity controlled environment only to open it with friends, after years of anticipation, to find that the wine was tainted and undrinkable.

Cork tainted, or simply “corked” as it is known, is caused by trace amounts of trichloroanisole, or TCA. It has been measured that quantities as small as six parts per million TCA will cause perceptible taint. Some believe that 10%, perhaps more, of cork finished wines suffer from cork taint to some degree. The cork industry will be quick to tell you that the figures are closer to 5% or less. My personal experience is that about 10% of cork closed wines are tainted, which is far too many in my view. Wine professionals and experienced consumers can easily identify a corked bottle of wine as it gives the wine a musty, wet cardboard aroma and flavor. When a wine is severely tainted by cork even novice wine drinkers can spot a problem. However, cork taint comes in varying degrees and often wines that are mildly corked don’t show much of the signature mustiness, but rather the infection simply dulls the wine robbing freshness and subtle aroma and flavor characteristics. The consumer leaves that experience with less than what they had anticipated, and paid for, and the brand potentially loses a customer for years or life.

Cork taint is not just a wine problem: it has crept its way into Spirits, especially in the premium market where using a cork closure is felt to add a bit of prestige. I have had the misfortune of experiencing corked Cognac, Whisky, Rum, and Vodka. With a little luck the people who market premium Spirits will discover that there is nothing prestigious in rendering a $50 bottle of Spirits, undrinkable.

Resistance to screwcaps seems to largely reside in the marketing arms of wineries and winery groups. They are simply afraid that you, the consumer, will react badly to screwcaps. Ironic, when you consider that these same marketers have spent decades and millions of dollars to try to “demystify” wine. Is the mystery and the romance of the cork far too pervasive? Many winemakers are ready to embrace the screwcap, which is easy to understand as the screwcap best protects their efforts. A winemaker friend once explained to me, “A winemaker takes tremendous care in the fields and at harvest. Once in the winery (the fruit) every effort is taken to ensure that each tank, hose, and tool that comes in contact with the wine is clean and sterile. The bottling lines are clean and each bottle sterilized before bottling. Then in the end we shove a hunk of tree in the bottle. Simply nonsense!” That statement came 15 plus years ago and has stuck with me ever since.

“Screwcaps are not the ultimate closure, they are simply the best available at this time,” relates Erica Crawford of Kim Crawford wine in New Zealand. Kim Crawford wines have been entirely under screwcap since 2001. Certainly, screwcaps are not without issue. Screwcaps, like corks must be affixed properly. As screwcaps become more popular much time is spent examining materials of the cap liners and the capsule itself. Some are satisfied with aluminum-based closures while others powerfully avoid aluminum and look to tin capsules. Without doubt, there is much to learn regarding screwcaps as we are still in the infant stages regarding screwcaps being used as wine closures.

Making the Switch
Once a winery has made the decision to embrace screwcaps, a considerable investment must be made. The present bottling line must be retro fitted to allow the application of screwcap closures. Ondine Chattan, of the Geyser Peak (CA) winemaking team, relates many issues regarding the conversion from cork to screwcap. “Everything must be considered. Bottles for one, must be changed because threaded top bottles are now needed and the choices are few (as compared to cork finished bottles) which means that the marketing staff has to get involved in choosing a new bottle type and perhaps a new label.” She went on to explain that even the equipment that neatly stacks the finished cases onto palates must be changed as the standard move of this machine is to invert the bottles on the cork end. Screwcap finished bottles don’t do well on their tops preferring the upright position or at least to be on their sides. In short, you can’t give the screwcap the thumbs-up on Monday and be busy bottling by week’s end. A lot of hours and dollars factor into the closure equation.

Do screwcaps allow wines to age? That is difficult to say as relatively few “age worthy” wines have screwcap closures. Conventional wisdom speaks of the corks ability to slowly “breathe” allowing air to pass slowly into the wine and contributing to the wines development. This is the most compelling argument made by the cork industry, as many believe this to be true. Crawford says that, “wines aged with a screwcap take a different path. While screwcap closed wines age they seem to retain the wine’s youthful fruit notes far more so than the cork.” The screwcap industry predictably suggests that wines age and develop brilliantly under the screwcap. They quickly, and rightfully, point out that a properly applied screwcap allows for a more uniform aging, limiting bottle variation that occurs with cork aging. (Corks are all different and bottles of the same wine, from the same case, will often age differently.) Screwcaps certainly do limit oxidation but does some oxygen infiltration benefit the wine? Famed Australian winemaker and wine author James Halliday said, “…there is sufficient oxygen in the wine and in the head space to allow that part of development which requires oxygen to take place. And – what is more – much of the development takes place anaerobically (without oxygen).” An interesting point and assertion. Unquestionably, we don’t know all that there is to know when it comes to how wines age. Wines aging without the need of oxygen has a base of logic when considering that the yeasts that form the wine during fermentation, and beyond, start their lives as aerobic creatures and then morph to an aerobic organisms while performing their necessary task (converting sugars to alcohol).

In Sum…
Screwcaps are an interesting and in many cases a preferred alternative to corks. The cork industry has had sufficient time to get their house in order and they have simply failed. In my view, aging is the only unanswered question. When considered that the vast majority (more than 90%) of all wines are consumed within two years of bottling, the concerns of aging are insignificant to most consumers while every wine drinker desires the cleanest wine possible. Ultimately is comes down to you. If you vote with your wallet buying wines with screwcap closures, the marketers and corporate wineries will be forced to take notice.

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