CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Editor Jim Gordon discusses the future of natural corks
In this space one year ago I wrote that there is no single neat answer to the question of what is the best overall wine bottle closure. I still believe that. Corks are not going away any time soon, even though the less expensive alternatives—screwcaps and some types of synthetics—have proven their reliability.
But what if I’m being way too conservative, and what’s really happening is that the transition to a new paradigm is occurring right now? We just don’t recognize it yet. What if screwcaps eventually take over the wine closures market? Then the wineries that stick with corks will be left behind, holding the bag of an outdated technology that consumers and the industry have dropped as they race down the path to the future.
The topic is in the news now because Hogue Cellars has shared the findings of an unprecedented five-year study comparing screwcaps and corks on Hogue wines. The results were unveiled at the American Society for Enology and Viticulture annual conference in Monterey. The study is the first conducted at a large-scale winery that compares multiple closure types sealed on a commercial bottling line under controlled conditions and publicly shares its findings. (See page 16 for more details.)
Blind tasted over five years
Seven members of the Hogue staff blind tasted the wines regularly as they aged. These winemakers and production people clearly favored the wines closed with Saranex-lined screwcaps, noting that they tasted fresher, better and were more consistent than the cork-closed wines even after five years. This included Hogue’s reserve level Genesis Merlot. The study knocks the legs out from under the old argument that screwcaps are fine for whites and light reds, because these should be consumed soon after bottling, but not for red wines that need aging.
The study reconfirms that screwcaps prevent TCA contamination from closures, but the most interesting thing to come out of the study may be that TCA contamination isn’t even the most important issue anymore. Now the issue is overall wine quality. What if the real take-home message is that corks themselves are holding back wine quality, not just the TCA present in some small percentage of them?
The arguments in favor of natural cork for preserving high quality in wine stress that cork is the only proven closure for really long-term aging. No wine collector has a screwcapped 1961 Château Latour in his cellar to analyze. On the other hand, there certainly are collectors that have bad bottles of natural-corked 1961 Château Latour in their cellars.
Wine connoisseurs and rare wine experts know that bottle variation (beyond TCA) is rampant in old wines. Maybe three bottles in a case will be perfect, eight will be so-so and one will be corky. What makes the eight so-so? Did the corks have much to do with it? The Hogue study makes me wonder if at age 50 those bottles of Hogue Genesis Merlot will be as consistent as at age 5.
The winemaker must be convinced
Two constituencies must accept a closure for a winery to confidently choose it. First, the winemaker must be convinced that the closure will take good care of the wine and present it to the eventual consumer in the way that the winemaker planned. Second, the consumer must accept it, and not incidentally the winery marketing people have to believe that consumers accept it. The consumer doesn’t have to know any of the details about the closure or even recognize the different types, as long as he or she has no prejudice against it.
Our cover story in this issue by Jane Firstenfeld (page 24) presents good anecdotal evidence that a substantial portion of winemakers and consumers have turned the corner on acceptance of alternative closures, particularly screwcaps. The argument remains, however, that people will miss the traditional ceremony of the cutting of the capsule and the popping of the cork. Some will, but not the new generation of consumers, sommeliers and wine writers who have come of age with high-quality screwcapped wines on the shelf and the wine list.
Tradition has its appeal, but what do winemakers and consumers really want? I think they want the wine inside the bottle to shine through. They want to taste the pure fruitiness of the grapes in a young, fresh wine and the complexity and terroir that eventually exude from the grapes in a rare, aged wine. It should really be about the wine, not the package.