What Chance Do We Have?
© copyright 2003 by Ric Einstein

A few years ago respected Australia wine professional, James Halliday (as the guest of the cork industry) took a trip to Portugal to investigate current events. Halliday stated that prior to the trip he was very sceptical about the claimed advances being made by the cork manufacturers. However after the trip he had some very positive comments about the improvements being made.

If you believe the press reports and cork lobby public relations things should be getting a lot better; new cleaning processes have been put in place and more careful harvesting techniques instituted. In theory, add to that the reduced demand on corks due to the increasing acceptance of alternative closures and the incidence of TCA in new corks should be reducing. But is that the case?

Recently there has been publicity regarding a new process where by TCA can be detected to a level that was previously unavailable. The Cork Supply Group is the company behind the process. Here is an excerpt from their web site.

"Over the last decade the cork industry has invested millions to reduce levels of TCA in cork. Now with demand for cork higher than ever, the investments are paying off. Cork Supply USA is reporting TCA levels, as measured by an independent laboratory, lower than ever and approaching zero."

If you believe this information then it's possible for companies to obtain taint-free corks which is great news indeed, so why isn't every winery jumping in and using these corks? The next few paragraphs may have something to do it.

"We now have three years of objective numbers using state-of-the-art Solid-Phase Micro Extraction (SPME) testing. SPME allows us to track down many of the sources of TCA in corks and remove them from the supply chain. The result is that with a proper quality assurance program no wine should be affected by a bad cork.

The advantages of using SPME are well known within the industry but not all cork suppliers use it as part of their quality assurance program. "SPME proves that TCA-free corks are possible, however, the test is expensive and adds to the cost of the corks. If wineries demand that all corks they purchase be subjected to a complete series of quality assurance tests, there is no reason they can't get near taint-free natural corks for their wines."

Since 1981, Cork Supply USA has provided wineries with the highest level of quality corks available. As part of the Cork Supply Group, it has a commitment to provide the wine industry with reliable quality corks. The Cork Supply Group is also the only cork provider to form a partnership with cork forest owners in Portugal, and together they own approximately 12 percent of all the cork forests in that country."

So what this mob is saying is that if you buy their corks and pay for "expensive tests" you can get good corks.

In a later article in Decanter their Australia off-shoot which supplies twenty two percent of the Australian cork market stated they were rejecting twenty five percent of cork batches after testing them. This raises a number of issues.

  1. If the cork industry has cleaned up their production methods as claimed and improved their cork harvesting selection methods why is the quality so bad that they are they still rejecting 25% of tested corks?
  1. How much of this is "FUD" ("fear, uncertainty and doubt")? In other words scare tactics aimed at getting the smaller wineries to come on board and buy their corks from the Cork Supply Group? After all, if you were a small producer and heard that 25% of all corks are dud and being rejected it would be enough to scare the pants off you wouldn't it?
  1. We need to remember that this company has a partnership with the cork forest owners and together own a significant proportion of that side of the business so how much of what they tell us can we believe as gospel and how much of it is designed to sell their products and services.

In a related issue, what about the companies that don't use Cork Supply Group's products and services, how are they fairing with corks? Well, if you think the twenty five percent that was quoted by what amounts to a member of the cork industry is scary, from what I have been able to confirm from unimpeachable sources is that the twenty five percent figure may be conservative. Some large wine companies who do their own testing are rejecting a substantially higher percentage of cork batches due to unacceptable levels of TCA.

No one knows what happens to those rejected cork batches because no one in the cork business is talking about this; quite strange when you consider how vocal the cork lobby can be at times.   If they are recycled and sold as cork tiles or the like, all the better, but it's just as possible they are being passed onto smaller wineries that do not do their own cork testing. If that's the case then buying wine from those wineries could be fraught with substantial risk to the wine buyer and the winery. Even if the dud batches are being ground up and recycled, based on the number of rejected percentages the wineries that don't use tested corks are in a "crap shoot."

In fact with corks, we are all in a crap shoot it's just a matter of how badly the odds are stacked against the players.

Now we have examined the potential dangers to wine caused by TCA and corks the rest of this article will show there is no clear guaranteed alternative at the moment and why it's so confusing for us amateurs to shift through the fact from the fiction.

As a starting point, we all know that cork has its limitations and faults. But for all its faults, when it works, it works well and both consumers and winemakers know what to expect. In the case of reds designed for long term ageing the same can not be said for alternative closures.

Very few people will argue that ROTE closures are not an acceptable, indeed excellent alternative for aromatic c-throughs or reds that are designed to be consumed in the short term. The use of a ROTE closure however does require careful management by the wine maker. Two facts have become known fairly quickly. The first is that fill level is critical, this is easy to achieve once it's known. The second is that the use of sulphur is critical. For some reason slightly too much sulphur and the wine sealed under ROTE will show more reductive characters than the same wine sealed under cork.

This should not be a problem as long as the winemaker gets its right. Now that it's a known requirement one would hope that those sealing under ROTE would get it right. Unfortunately that is not necessarily the case right now. For example in the last two weeks a friend of mine (Brian) tried 18 recently released young reds, all 2002 vintage, $13-$25 price range, 12 under cork, 6 under ROTE. Of these one was corked and two of those under ROTE showed obvious sulphur/reductive characters, sufficiently pronounced to cause the wines to be rated last in a group of 6 (excluding the corked wine) In time as winemakers gain more experience with ROTE this should not be an issue.

In the case of reds designed for long term ageing there is still considerable debate even amongst our leading winemakers.

Some wine makers are absolutely adamant that corks are the way to go, Dr Middleton of Mount Mary fame being one of them but the people that are 100% totally committed to cork seem to be in the minority.

Robert O'Callaghan of Rockford admits that cork has a problem but has this to say "I've been around long enough to have seen several dramatic changes in the Australian wine industry so I am a little less likely to jump on the trend express, and have inherent suspicion of those who declare that everything that is new is great. Its less than 20 years ago that the Federal and State Government, most wine experts, the press, and more than half of the winemakers in the Barossa, declared it (presumably the Barossa) and the traditional varieties that we grew "finished."

As we all know with 20-20 hindsight how wrong the experts were and how valuable those old vines that survived the vine pull scheme have turned out to be, those that bucked the trend were the winners.

Drew Noon who is MW and knows a thing or three about wine and making it said in his newsletter "The Jury is still out on this (ROTE), particularly in relation to full-bodied red wines. Some red producers have started using screw caps so we'll have the opportunity to assess this in 10 years time but I have some doubts so we'll continue with natural corks until we can be sure."

Will Nairn of Peel Estate, a very experienced winemaker is very happy to use ROTE for short term wine but is reported to be against them for wines destined for longer term storage.

Steven Henschke said in his newsletter stated, "In trials conducted since 1996 we have found that the Stelvin wine closure has been exceptional in eliminating cork taint, protecting the purity of the varietal fruit flavours and enhancing the keeping qualities by slowing bottle development. Although wine still develops in the bottle, the rate of development is dramatically reduced."

Henschke has started releasing their wines that have been designed for short term consumption in Stelvin but have not taken the plunge on Mount Edelstone, Cyril and Hill of Grace. Why? Other winemakers who are equally well as respected as the names above are 100% convinced that ROTE is the way to go.

For example Keith Mugford of Moss Wood in his last newsletter (in part) stated "Our program of using Stelvin screw top closures for Moss Wood wine continues and so far, we are very pleased with the results. .. Consumers are also supporting the new closures, to the point where only 30% of our wines will now be sealed using corks and these will primarily be designed for the export markets."

Some of the large companies have been conducting their own in-house trials using alternate closures but as yet its early days. None of them are talking about the results, except to confirm they will be converting their early drinking wines to ROTE closures.

This article has purposely steered away from the technical aspects of how wines age under different closures. It's confusing enough for us amateurs to come to grips with the top winemakers' opinions, let alone be amateur chemists and have enough witch doctor experience to understand what happens in a bottle of wine over the course of its life. However it would be remiss not to point out that even here some of the top winemakers disagree on some aspects of the wines ageing process.

This is a subject that many hard-core wine lovers are extremely passionate about and many have very strong opinions on the subject, but that's all they are at this stage, personal opinions.

So what chance do we amateurs have of understanding who is right and who is wrong? Very little! But time will reveal all. I for one intend to keep an open mind but will finish off with a quote from the Australian Wine Research Institute trial that extensively tested a 1999 Semillon under 9 types of synthetic corks, 2 technical corks, 2 types of natural corks and 1 ROTE: "No one closure tested in this study could be considered entirely suitable by all the criteria assessed, for the long term storage of wine, although many of them could be considered suitable for shorter-term storage."

Nov. 12, 2003

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