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Cork versus Screw Cap: Don’t Dismiss the Benefits of Cork!

At the NZ Wine Online tasting of New Zealand wines by Escarpment and Quartz Reef at Coast on Wednesday night I sat next to a gentlemen who was absolutely livid that one of the wines had a cork closure. The wine in question was the Escarpment Kupe Pinot Noir 2009 ($74.95), the second most expensive wine of the evening, and Escarpment’s top cuvee. (See Masterclass with New Zealand’s Escarpment and Quartz Reef, Cellarit Wine Blog, 1 October 2011)

Curious why Escarpment’s winemaker Larry McKenna was still sticking with cork in face of what looks like growing consumer resistance, at least in Australia and New Zealand, I asked Larry to explain his reasoning. He believes that for top flight wines, which require bottle ageing to properly evolve, cork is better than screw cap, as it allows the wine to breathe more.

When I got home the latest issue of Decanter was waiting for me on my IPad. Coincidentally, it included an interview with Giaconda’s acclaimed winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner, who told Decanter’s Andrew Jefford that he was unimpressed with what he considers Australian writers’ lack of objectivity about closures.

Like Larry McKenna, Kinzbrunner uses both cork and screw cap, and likes both for different wines. He was appalled by the response of one writer upon hearing that Giaconda’s nebbiolo is sealed under cork: “Now surely if there’s one wine that needs cork, it’s nebbiolo. The vitriol I got after that! ‘No, I’m not interested in your wine if you seal it with a stupid piece of bark.’ There’s this insane preference for screw caps in Australia; and I don’t think it’s objective.” (The Decanter Interview: Rick Kinzbrunner by Andrew Jefford, Decanter November 2011)

In Australia, Kinzbrunner is not exactly a lone ranger among fine winemakers when it comes to maintaining a preference for the cork closure.

Jasper Hill’s Ron Laughton told Langton’s Andrew Caillard that from an organic/biodynamic point of view, he is concerned about the health consequences of wine staying in contact with the plastic seal in the metal screw caps : “Metal (screw cap) seals require an internal soft compound to actually seal against the glass bottle neck…The manufacturers say this compound is food grade, but there have been many contaminant scares within the food industry in the past. I don’t like the idea of my long living wines being in contact with plastic for maybe twenty years and what may leach out of the food grade plastic over time.” (To Cork or Not to Cork: That is the Question by Andrew Caillard, Langton’s Magazine)

Peter Althaus of Tasmania’s Domaine A, one of Tasmania’s best wineries, clearly articulated his reasons for sticking with cork in his newsletter:

We all know that wine ages differently under cork compared to that of screw cap. It’s a living thing and needs to ‘breathe’. The cork acts like a permeable membrane between itself and the big wide world. Over years the wine slowly develops and ages. All great wines need to age. That’s why we cellar wine – to allow it to develop in something special The screw cap can can slow the ageing process of wine because it breathes less. Wines under screw cap can take many more years to develop than under cork. That may be fine for some but an ’89 Petrus would be a very different wine today if were sealed under screw cap.

While acknowledging that screw cap eliminates the possibility of cork taint, Althaus goes on to say: “The closure can get damaged easily and then leak, and there have been reports of excessive sulphur levels which cause ‘reductive’ characters in the fruit and make the wine smell ‘rubbery’ or ‘eggy’.” (Tete A Tete, Volume 15, July 2010)

But the debate about whether a cork closure helps the wine to age better than a wine sealed under screw cap is far from settled. Matt Harrop of Shadowfax Winery told Caillard that he is convinced that “under screw cap wines age slowly and consistently. They retain brightness and youth for longer. We are now seeing wines age as they are supposed to. Not in the random, haphazard manner of cork bark…The ridiculous argument that screw capped wines will not age is wrong. Not ageing is a good thing. Rapid ageing is not a good thing.”

Fortunately, Australia’s and New Zealand’s early and quick adoption of the screw cap has played a pivotal role in forcing cork producers to lift their game. Recent investment in new technology, processes and quality control have resulted in much better and more reliable corks. Althaus said Domaine A imports corks directly from a supplier in Spain, and less than 1% of Domaine A wines suffer from cork taint.

So, the debate over cork versus screw cap rages on. But given that the majority of fine wines world-wide are still sealed under cork, I think you do yourself a real disfavour if you don’t keep an open mind!

Merrill Witt, Editor

 

5 Responses to Cork versus Screw Cap: Don’t Dismiss the Benefits of Cork!

  1. You are so right about the quick uptake of the screw cap in Australia, as it is seldom that I open a bottle with a cork now.
    You mention less than 1% of wine suffering Cork Taint with Domaine A Wines corks, at what age is this.

    I think you have a very valid point about the food grade plastic. I am open minded about cork or screw cap although I have to say that I can not hide my disapointment as a consumer when I open the bottle I have been saving or just bought and it is corked! Part of the charm or is this a headache?

    • My guess is that Domaine A is basing its cork failure rate on returns or complaints they’re received since 1989, when they first started using a new supplier in Spain. I’m sure that not everyone who opens a ‘bad’ bottle would bother to get in touch with the winery, as they may blame the fault on other factors – heat damage or poor cellaring, for example. Domaine A does say that any wine producer worth their salt will replace a corked wine. They also quote industry reports of about 6% of wine (about two bottles in every three cases) that could contain traces of TCA or cork taint. Still seems too high, but the good news is that the shift to screw caps is forcing major improvements, which will likely cause the failure rate for cork closures to fall significantly. Merrill

  2. Rhys Goodey says:

    That man who was livid at the tasting is a narrowminded rude fool who obviously doesn’t travel very far. I much prefer cork although I know that a few of them fail, nowhere near ten percent. The aluminium and screwcap industries are just doing a king hit on cork the way trucking companies did on rail in Australia after the war.They want their product to prevail, bugger the public and the health aspects.
    I am content to find a screwcap on the wine that I shall be drinking within the next few days. That’s as far as it goes for screwcap with me. Crown seal is not a bad idea and swingtop I can testify will do fine for five years if treated right. I would endorse what Ron Laughton says about the tops of screwcaps, and am worried about the aluminium as well as the plastic membrane. That is why I don’t buy many screwcaps at all and I would never never never store them on their sides.
    We’ve just had an huge and lively debate on http://www.LinkedIn.com-Wines and Spirits Number One group-that will keep you blogging and blogwatching till the cows come home!!!

  3. Mat says:

    Hi Merrill,
    The report of less than 1% cork taint is based on what we, at cellar door have observed.
    I have just returned from the Tasmania Unbottled event (Bris/Syd/Mel) and opened more than 100 bottles and not one was corked.
    It is unusual for us to have a corked wine and the reason for this, as explained in our newsletter is due to the fact that Peter Althaus buys the highest grade cork he can. It’s certainly an added expense, but that’s what Peter AND our customers want. Certainly the ‘pro-stelvin’ users never talk about how much money they are saving, because if they did – you would ask why they never passed on their saving to the consumer. ;-) Regards – Mat (Domaine A)

  4. Argento Wine says:

    Interesting how different countries/markets have different preferences and connotations associated with cork or screwcap. Andrew Catchpole recently gave us his thoughts about the ongoing debate, particularly from an Argentine perspective: http://www.therealargentina.com/argentinian-wine-blog/the-endless-debate-screw-cap-wine-vs-cork/

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