On the Cellarit Facebook page, I noted that Huon Hooke reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that Penfolds will now give people a choice of cork or screwcap. According to Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago, “cork is a barometer of care.” It’s a better indicator of bad handling, heat damage or poor storage conditions, because the cork will leak or, if affected by heat, slightly push up into the seal. (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2012)

David Hawkins of One Aussie Wines responded to my Facebook post with the following comment: “Peter Gago may be correct, but I’ve had plenty of wines with corks that were up or down and the wine was fine…unfortunately TCA doesn’t offer any clues and that’s a more relevant fault for most people. I’ve also had heat affected bottles where there was no leakage or cork movement.”

Penfolds’ move is certainly sparking a fair bit of controversy. Hooke followed up on his article in the Herald with a post on his website. He noted that for Penfolds one of the key factors behind the move back to cork is increasing exports to markets like China where expertise on how to store, transport and properly care for wine is still developing.

But whether reverting back to cork is the best answer to gauge whether a wine has been heat damaged is debatable. Ian Riggs, chief winemaker at Brokenwood, was just as skeptical as David about whether cork was a better barometer of care than screwcap. He told Hooke:

Why don’t they just admit that they have buckled to the demands of their export markets and gone back to cork? To state that it is a way of showing up badly stored wine reeks of April Fool’s Day. So now, wine from all over the world is going to be replaced as soon as there’s a slightly pushed cork or signs of weeping? Here’s an idea: get better storage up to the point of sale to the customer and then start an education program to get the wines looked after once purchased. The odd thing is that a wine under screwcap has a better chance of surviving adverse conditions than one under cork. (Penfolds Cork Disclosure, HuonHooke.com, 16 April 2012)

Riggs also questioned whether evidence of heat damage necessarily means that the wine is spoiled: “It may have been badly stored but there’s no loss of wine as the seal hasn’t been broken. The wine may been a bit more advanced (if heat affected) but it will still be in a presentable state. Once the cork has pushed and even if the storage temperature drops, the cork can’t go back to a perfect seal.”

Improving wine storage conditions in Asian countries like China is certainly of critical importance. I almost cried when I heard a report of Lafite being stored in a 30 degree celsius carpark in one of China’s main cities!

But with China’s growing interest in fine wine, technical know-how and strong history of fast-tracking development, I’m guessing that it won’t be long before its wine storage facilities are plentiful and state-of-the art. Also, preference for screwcaps seems to be growing in the US, which is now the world’s largest market for wine. Today Shanken News Daily reported that following the change of New Zealand’s Nobilo’s closure from cork to screwcap in 2011, the brand has been growing at double digits in the US.

So the debate over which is the perfect closure for a whole variety of reasons continues to rage on!

Photo Credit: Buckingham Valley Winery, Pennsylvania

Merrill Witt, Editor