Achieving closure: curtains for cork?

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Is cork finished?  Statistically, of course not: the vast majority of the world#;s bottled wines still find themselves trapped in their glass cells by lumps of oak bark.  Beneath this surface continuity, by contrast, the currents are swirling.

It is hard to find a single British professional wine buyer at present who would not prefer synthetic stoppers or screwtop closures to natural cork for inexpensive wines to be consumed within six months of bottling.  It is hard, too, to find a single journalist prepared to fight cork#;s corner for this sector of the market.  Only consumer resistance impedes a whole-scale switch to non-cork closures.  Much of this 'resistance#;, moreover, is putative, based on fear of the risk of lost sales and the erosion of competitive advantage rather than first-hand evidence of certain consumer rejection.  With opinion-formers on side, it is surely only a matter of time before the gates fall and the city of cork crumbles.

Three key questions emerge at present.  What will be the winning closure? How soon will alternative closures become the norm for inexpensive wines rather than the exception?  And will cork always retain its place of pre-eminence for wines intended for long-term storage?

In the alternative-closure sweepstake, screwcaps are inching ahead.  Not, perhaps, on the shelves: it#;s less risky for wine producers to switch to plastic stoppers than screwcaps since, beneath a capsule, the alternative doesn#;t glare the shopper in the eye.  Scientific hearts and minds, though, have been won over.  

Evidence from an Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) survey, released at the end of last year, showed that screwcaps were more effective than any other closure at excluding oxygen (and that some plastic corks actually performed more poorly than natural cork in this respect).  Screwcaps, of course, don#;t produce the TCA characters that natural cork is prone to do, nor the plastic smells associated with artificial corks. 

The AWRI survey, however, did find a rubbery smell developed on the Semillon chosen for the research in the screwcapped samples.  Long-term users of screwcaps were surprised by this, concluding that it was probably the fault of the wine (which must have contained traces of hydrogen sulphide) rather than the cork. 

"On a clean wine .. screwcaps are beginning to look unbeatable"
The reason why it developed on the screwcap version would have been the reductive efficiency of this closure.  (The 'oxidative'; nature of real and artificial corks, in other words, helped dispel the stink.) On a clean wine, and assuming you want to deliver exactly the same scents and flavours as those you ran out of the vat, screwcaps are beginning to look unbeatable.

How long, though, will it take them to overthrow natural cork at the inexpensive end of the market?  No one knows yet - though several producers#; groups are trying to force the pace.  The logic behind wine producers combining to form a united front is obvious: they are, in effect, agreeing to annul competition between each other in this respect.  The common cause, they are saying, matters more than the competitive edge. 

Following the lead from Clare Valley Riesling producers, 2001 saw the launch of the 'New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative#;: 27 wineries from all over the country who have agreed … well, not exactly an overnight switch to screwcaps, but "to facilitate use of screwcap wine seals for the current bottling season". 

They#;re also talking up screwcaps, and leading New Zealand wine journalist and educator Bob Campbell M.W. has agreed to act as (unpaid) spokesperson and ambassador for the group.  I met Campbell when he was in London recently.  "My role," he told me, "is all about trying to encourage people to get over prejudices they may harbour about screwcaps being an inferior seal."  In a recent tasting for New Zealand#;s Cuisine magazine, Campbell told me, only five out of 144 wines had been screwcapped.  "We#;re not talking about a mass movement.  Those people need support if they#;re going to make any headway.  That#;s why I#;m wading in."  We won#;t wake up tomorrow to find screwcaps universally accepted, in other words, but give it ten years and they may well be the inexpensive closure of choice.

What, finally, of the most interesting question of all: whether Château Haut-Brion, Dom Pérignon and Grange will remain loyal to cork?  If they do, then screwcaps will always be perceived as second rate, downmarket, the cheap alternative.

The militant tendency amongst the screwcap brigade is on a charge: if quality truly is the ojective, then one day Haut-Brion will be opened with a clickety twist.  Australian wine writer Philip White goes so far as to allege that "every bottle with a cork in it is corky to some degree - it has to be."  Bob Campbell is no less radical.  "Cork taint is almost a minor part of all this.  It#;s the random oxidation that is the really scary stuff, and the smell and flavour of cork.  I don#;t like the smell of cork.  I regard it as a contaminant. The most important thing is the exciting potential of having wines age and cellar well and gracefully, without risk."

This, for me, is where a kind of eye-rolling fundamentalism begins to creep into the debate.  While cork taint remains at its present levels, I#;d be content to see all bottles intended to be drunk within the year kitted out with screwcaps.  For such wines, cleanliness and freshness is paramount.

With wines intended for long ageing, by contrast, and especially those for which are already wood fermented or aged, the matter is very different.  Cork, after all, is also wood; indeed it is also oakwood.  It could be argued that what a cork does is to carry on the work (holding, flavour-exchanging, gently oxidising) of a barrel.  To me, the scent of a fresh, clean cork is every bit as beautiful as the scent of a finely crafted barrique; indeed in some ways the sweetly waxy scent of the suberin in cork is subtler and more captivating that the toast and vanilla of oak itself.

My experience of great old red wines (chiefly Bordeaux) suggests to me that, far from being a 'contaminant#;, the flavour which clean cork exchanges with the wine it is barricading adds, rather than removes, levels of beauty.  The idea that 'every bottle with a cork in it is corky#; is a ludicrous one, based on the apparent failure to distinguish between TCA contamination and clean cork flavour. The subtle oxidation, furthermore, which wine undergoes under clean cork in proper storage conditions, too, seems to me to bring complexity and nuance to fine red wines - though anyone with extensive experience of opening old bottles will also know that gross, wine-spoiling oxidation is too common.

What we need, of course, are more tests, especially tests on top-level Bordeaux.  If it could be shown that, over a 30-year storage period, bottles of Haut-Brion not only avoid all cork taint and all gross oxidation under screwcap, but that the scent and flavour of the wine is more beautiful without input from clean cork, and without the slow controlled oxidation of classic cork ageing, then the screwcap case is proved - and it#;s curtains for cork. 

This implies, of course, confirmation of the fact that the saran-film-tin liner which touches the wine in the bottle in a screwcap does not have any adverse effect on the wine itself (Pechiney, the produces of Stelvin, only 'guarantee#; it for 10 years). 

And strangely enough I happened to notice, according to Pechiney-produced publicity materials, that screwcap trials had been carried out back in the early 1970s at Haut-Brion, with the results (Pechiney claimed) being adjudged 'no different#; to conventionally corked stopped bottles in 1978.  (The screwcap storage was upright, not horizontal.) 

If any of those original trial bottles still existed, we would now have the wherewithal to make the essential 30-year comparison. Perhaps, indeed, the staff at Haut-Brion have been looking at them regularly ever since.  I contacted the château to find out more.

Jean-Bernard Delmas replied by confirming that back in 1972 tests had been carried out on a portion of the 1969 Haut-Brion harvest. Conventional corks and screwcap tops were compared; indeed the screwcaps included, Delmas told me, "a special film that would be supposed to last very long. The main result was that we did not see any differences during roughly ten years. But after this period, a lot of the screwcap bottles were oxidised. In fact the film had lost its elasticity, was cracking, and the wine was damaging the aluminium underlay." 

The conclusion at Haut-Brion was therefore that "this system was suitable for a normal standard wine consumption.  But this system would not be suitable for a great growth." The experiment has not been repeated. Perhaps, of course, the film quality has improved since then; it is certainly time for one of Bordeaux#;s great châteaux to re-run these tests.

Expert Analysis

Caps and Closures to 2005
Analysis of  the $3.8 billion US cap and closure industry. It presents historical data (1990, 1995, 2000) and forecasts to 2005 and 2010 by raw material and by market.


To finish, a final philosophical note. I put it to Bob Campbell that, if screwcaps did win the day, I still hoped that they would not be 100%, and that my case of 12 screwcapped bottles of Haut-Brion 2015 would still produce 12 slightly different wines, even if they were all opened on the same day.  He looked at me as if I was mad.  "I can#;t accept that at all," he replied.  "I think difference is a negative."

For me, absolute consistency is industrial and inhuman ideal, whereas difference (or, if you prefer, inconsistency) is an agricultural and human ideal. I think difference is a positive. It#;s why I love wine. No one wants faulty old bottles, ruined by cork taint or gross oxidation, but I don#;t think many people want identical, clone-like old bottles, either. A cellar is an underground garden, and the less monotonous it looks, the better.

Companies: LVMH Group

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