Putting the screws to regular corked wines
At a recent wine tasting, I found myself in front of a table of wines from New Zealand. To my right was a gentleman who sniffed and sneered as he declined our hosts offer to taste the wines. “No, no thanks,” he said with a hint of derision. “Those wines have screw tops. They won’t be any good.”To our host’s credit, he simply smiled. I, on the other hand, grimaced. Arrogance and ignorance are a bad pairing at any tasting.The fact is, these days, some very good wines spend their lives in bottles topped with screw caps. In the case of New Zealand, an early adapter to the new closures, as many as 80 percent of all wines have screw caps. That includes some of the best sauvignon blancs in the world. Germany has been using screw caps for many years and many super-premium wines feature them. And in this country there has been a movement toward using alternate closures – screw caps, glass corks and other innovations – for most of this century.By now you may have heard why there is this rush to new products for sealing wine bottles. Corks have problems. It is estimated that as much as one bottle of wine per case (on average) is tainted by a bad cork, though estimates vary widely depending upon who’s doing the testing. The issue is a compound called TCA, or more exactly, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, which results when natural fungi from the corks come in contact with chlorophenol, a stinky compound found in disinfectants. The result is a bottle of wine that, when opened, smells, well, very bad. Think musty, musky old newspapers. When you hear someone say the bottle is “corked,” that’s generally what has happened.Screw caps are part of the wine industry’s war on corked wines. There is a standard line delivered by many in the wine world who are in favor of the new closures. They ask: “What other industry in the world would tolerate a 10 percent failure rate of its products?”While this may be true, it may not be accurate in the real world. How many bottles have you personally turned aside this year as being “corked”? If you are a sommelier, pouring aged Bordeaux or Burgundy, perhaps a few. If you are a connoisseur, opening 1970s vintage California cabernets at your summer dinners, maybe a few more. But for most of us, drinking younger wines, the problem of corked wines may be overstated. And screw caps aren’t perfect either. Studies have shown that the incidence of product failure, from broken seals or sulphidisation, (which is caused by an excessive use of a preservative, sulphur dioxide, on the closure), can run as high as 2 percent to 3 percent. Less than that of corks, but still unacceptably high. In addition, the use of screw caps is so new that there is little documentation showing how fine wines, aged for considerable time in bottles, will react to the lack of oxygen interplay that corks allow and screw caps don’t. In 1997, PlumpJack Winery, a fine producer of cabernet sauvignon in the Oakville region of the Napa Valley, placed half of its allotment of reserve in bottles with corks and half in bottles sealed with Stelvin closures, a screw cap made in France. Today, a decade later, they are drinking great. And in Bordeaux, Chateau Margaux, one of the most significant producers in the wine world, has laid down a couple of cases of its second label wine, Le Pavillon Rouge, in screw-capped bottles to study the effects of aging.My personal favorite among the new closure systems is the glass “corks” made by Alcoa and marketed under the trade name “Vino-Seal.” While these little glass stoppers have been widely used in Europe for the last five years or so, they are relatively new here in the States. The first wine I saw that used one was an Oregon pinot noir from Sineann.Peter Rosback, one the most talented of the Pacific Northwest’s young winemakers, sealed his 2004 Resonance Vineyard pinot noir with the glass stopper. They are small, clean and very tactile. They feel good in the hand, are easy to open, and, best of all, don’t have the issues that are associated with corks or screw caps. The bottom line is don’t judge a bottle by its seal. Be adventurous and open your bottle with an open mind.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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