Farewell to the cork?
Picture this: You're dining out at a fancy restaurant, and you order a fine, expensive vintage wine. The sommelier, brandishing a golden "church key" on a velvet neck ribbon, pops off its beer-bottle-style cap with a genteel flourish.
Or you order a case of a noteworthy Cabernet to mature in your cellar, and when your treasure arrives, you open the crate to find a dozen bottles closed with metal screw caps.
Don't laugh! It could happen. Australian wine lover Murray Almond tells us that the Melbourne Wine Company recently released a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling using "crown seals," the same closure used for beer bottles. Meanwhile, British wine writer Jancis Robinson reported that the giant Gallo winery in California uses screwcaps for many of its finer wines in "library" storage; and some wine researchers at the University of California at Davis argue that the screwcap -- widely regarded as the hallmark of cheap, poor "jug wines" -- is actually an ideal way to seal finer wines for long-term storage.
Corks have been the traditional wine-bottle closure for about 300 years, and when they work well, they make about as good a stopper as anyone has invented. The cork is so enshrined in tradition that most of us chuckle at the very idea of a quality wine closed with a beer cap or jug-wine cap.
But the wine industry isn't laughing. Here's why:
Natural cork is all too often afflicted by a fungus called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA), a chemical that imparts its flavor to wine and, basically, ruins it. If you've ever tasted a wine with a dank, moldy aroma that reminds you of wet cardboard, a damp basement or mushrooms, that's TCA, and the wine is said to be "corked." By some estimates, as many as one bottle of wine in 20 is tainted by the TCA fungus.
Some wineries have reduced the incidence of corkiness by using expensive corks that undergo intense inspection before use. Even then, however, some afflicted corks get through.
Crown caps and screw tops offer alternatives; another modern solution is the use of synthetic corks made from plastics and other non-cork materials. This is an interesting development, and it's coming into increasing use for less expensive wines, in which it seems to be a perfectly adequate alternative.
There are several commercial brands, some of which use a cork-colored product as protective camouflage, while others use bright, bold colors in a sort of reverse-snobbery approach.
It's going to take a lot of experimentation before the wine industry can be certain that synthetics, crown caps and screw tops have the durability to protect wine during long-term storage; and it's going to take a lot of marketing before wine lovers give up our attachment to the traditional cork. But I wouldn't bet that the old-fashioned cork won't eventually go the way of the LP phonograph record.
What's your opinion? Would you buy fine wine with an alternative closure? Drop me a note at email@example.com. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, but I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine. Please feel free to get in touch if you'd like to comment on our topics and tasting notes, suggest a topic for a future bulletin, or just talk about wine.
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Good value Spanish red
Clear ruby in color, this wine shows the vanillin and spice aromas that come from time in new oak barrels, a Rioja tradition. The heavy oak doesn't conceal fresh if simple black fruit, however, and good ripe fruit is even more evident on the palate, where it's well matched with fresh acidity. If not a complex wine, it's balanced and enjoyable, and serves quite well at the table. U.S. importer: W. J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd., Harrison, N.Y. (Oct. 31, 1999)
FOOD MATCH: The wine's fresh fruit and crisp acid make it a very good match with a simple roast chicken.
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Vol. 1, No. 41, Nov. 1, 1999