Screw caps win respect
The cork wars continue.
On the one hand, increasingly frustrated by the non-trivial percentage of fine wines spoiled by tainted natural corks, many serious wine consumers are ready to embrace wines bottled with alternative closures.
On the other, there's no disputing the power of some 300 years of tradition in holding consumer loyalty to the natural cork. Particularly in the United States and on the continent in Europe, many wine lovers regard anything but a real cork as second-rate ... despite ample evidence that as many as one of every 20 bottles is spoiled by the musty, mushroomy "cork taint" that afflicted natural corks impart.
During the past 10 years or so, an increasing number of wines - predominantly less expensive wines not meant for aging - have begun showing up with cork-like stoppers made of synthetic materials.
More recently, an even more unlikely contender has entered the fray: The metal screw cap, long associated with only the cheapest "jug" wines, seems to be taking over from synthetics as the leading alternative to cork ... and is quickly shedding its past negative association with the raw stuff that "winoes" prefer. I'm seeing a change of attitude in the past year or two, with the once-maligned screw cap gaining considerable momentum.
Just three years ago last week, when California's tiny Plumpjack Winery announced that it would bottle some of its $100-plus Cabernet under screw caps, it earned a brief flurry of headlines as a "man bites dog" story, of interest mostly because it was so unusual.
But developments since that time have turned the unusual into the commonplace. Studies in Australia and New Zealand strongly challenged the conventional wisdom that screw caps aren't durable or can't be used for cellaring. Wine producers in Australia's Clare Valley (and later in New Zealand) began moving almost en masse toward screw caps for their white wines ... and more recently even such respected producers as Henschke have started using them for ageworthy reds. In the U.S., the innovative Bonny Doon winery has switched to screw caps for all its wines.
And perhaps the most significant player of all, in terms of impact on the marketplace, is the huge British grocery firm Tesco, which has become aggressive in selling screw-capped wines and insisting that its suppliers provide them. Amid great publicity, Tesco launched a range of screw-capped wines in April 2002, and sold 1.5 million bottles in the first 10 weeks.
The giant firm persuaded such major French producers as Georges Duboeuf and Val d'Orbieu to provide Tesco wines in screw caps, and later wrote similar contracts with large producers Down Under. This week, word leaked out that Ernest & Julio Gallo - the gigantic American winery that not so long ago sought to upgrade its image by moving AWAY from screw caps - will produce screw-capped quality wines for shipment to Tesco.
Quoted last year in the British wine magazine Decanter, a Tesco executive put the company's position bluntly: "Tesco has made the move 'to break the association of screwcaps and cheap wine, because it believes levels of cork taint are unacceptable. ... "If as many faulty cans of baked beans were found as bottles of wine," a Tesco spokesman said, "it would be on the TV news. We have to break the mould."
Today's tasting report features Wirra Wirra 2001 "Hand Picked" Riesling, a fine Australian white wine securely sealed with a quality Stelvin-brand screw cap. According to the winery's Website, the decision to put the wine under screw cap was simple. " ... it was a quality issue," said winery Managing Director Tim James. "We've chosen Stelvin for the benefit of our consumers. We want them to be safe in the knowledge that every bottle of Hand Picked Riesling they consume will be in pristine condition. Exactly the way that was intended by us, from the moment it went to bottle."
In my opinion, they succeeded. This wine is fresh, crisp and clean, with clearly defined Riesling aromas and flavors and no hint of cork taste. It's a winner.
Wirra Wirra 2001 "Hand Picked" Fleurieu Riesling ($10)
Closed with a Stelvin-brand screwcap, this Australian wine from the Fleurieu Peninsula near McLaren Vale shows a transparently pale brass color in the glass. Remarkably fresh and clean, it shows crisp lime juice and stony Riesling minerality on the nose and palate. Bone-dry, good body, lime and steel, it's an extremely good representation of pure Riesling fruit, perhaps enhanced by its screwcap bottling. U. S. importer: Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Calif. (June 7, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: A little too dry to make a perfect match with the fiery spice in a the Szechwanese ma po tofu featured in yesterday's Wine Advisor FoodLetter, which really needed a somewhat sweeter wine; but the Riesling fruit does show well with exotic Asian flavors.
VALUE: Extremely good value at this price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Riesling is one of the most ageworthy white grapes, and the Stelvin cap enhances its cellar potential. Fine and fresh now, but several years in a good cellar will likely add pleasing complexity.
WEB LINK: The U.S. importer's fact sheet on this wine is online:
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Friday, June 13, 2003