Speaking of cork ...
Last week, when we invited readers to "vote" for or against metal screw caps on fine wine, I suspected that a fair percentage of this wine-savvy audience would stand up as ready for an alternative to the old-fashioned natural cork.
Is no one left to speak up in defense of the natural cork? In the interest of fairness and balance, let's devote today's Friday back-from-holiday column to a few arguments on the other side.
Screw caps aren't proven for long-term aging. This may be the most frequently posed argument against wholesale change, and it arguably has merit. Barring unlikely rumors about super-secret experiments in locked rooms at top chateaus, it's a fact that high-tech modern screw caps are too new to have established a track record for aging top, cellarworthy wines over many decades. Will great Bordeaux (for example) age in exactly the same way over 50 years under screwcaps as it has aged under cork? There's no way to know for certain without a half-century of practical experience, but given that an intact screw cap is likely more air-tight than a sound cork, the chances are that very old wines won't respond in exactly the same way to extended aging. It's also known that even a healthy cork imparts some "wood" flavor to wine over long periods; the extent to which this "cork-aged character" is important to quality in ancient collectible wines is hard to determine, but we may not miss it until it's gone. Verdict: The jury is out.
Screw caps may be fragile. A few sources in the wine business have mentioned that screw caps appear to be subject to damage, and that a sharp encounter with a hard object may dent the cap, compromising its integrity. This could be a problem, but I haven't encountered it or heard of it from consumers; it's also unclear whether the sturdy Stelvin brand and similar modern products intended for fine wine are more resistant to damage than lightweight caps used on modest "jug wines." Verdict: Needs further study.
What will become of my corkscrew collection? It will probably go to the same place as your slide rule, your turntable and your typewriter whiteout. I'm sure I'll hang on to a couple of my most prized cork extractors ... and maybe have rare occasion to use them to remove corks from some of the last holdouts. Verdict: True, but not deeply relevant.
We'll miss the genteel tradition of the formal cork extraction. If you've ever watched in alarm as an inexperienced server wrestles with cork and corkscrew, you may not consider the loss of the "restaurant ritual" an unmixed blessing. But we should never underestimate the creative spirit of the service industry. I've already seen signs that sommeliers in Australia, which is well ahead of North America in embracing the screw cap, are evolving new tricks to enhance screw cap removal with style and flair. From the simple process of holding the cap tight while turning the bottle to the more showy trick of rolling the bottle neck down the sommelier's tux-clad arm to unwind the cap with no hands on, I'm confident that competent servers will still find ways to entertain us. Verdict: Yes, but so what?
What about the poor Portuguese eagle? Stories abound, particularly in Europe, that the demise of the wine-cork economy could lead to the loss of Portuguese cork-oak forests with rare and exotic threatened animal species that live there. Although the World Wildlife Federation took up this banner, and no less a luminary than Britain's Prince Charles spoke out in concern, it appears almost certain that this is a bogus issue created by public-relations spinmeisters hired at considerable expense by APCOR, the Portuguese wine-cork industry trade organization. Verdict: Bullfeathers.
The bottom line: It still comes down to this: Natural cork is a 17th century technology that against all logic has survived into the 21st century. While it's true that it embodies considerable romance and that it may possibly be a significant variable in the process of aging the tiny segment of collectible, cellarworthy wines, the simple fact remains: As much as 5 percent of commercial wine is spoiled by tainted, fungus-ridden natural cork; and despite all sorts of promises over the years, there is little or nothing that the industry can do to reduce this toll. Consumers are unwilling to accept a failure rate even approaching this level for any other product - imagine our outrage if the food industry casually assumed that we would have to throw out 5 percent of everything we bring home from the grocery - and there's no good reason to accept it in wine.
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Friday, Aug. 19, 2005