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 Uncorking the industry Two newly arrived French whites may signal an accelerated move away from the natural tree-bark cork.
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Uncorking the industry

It's hard to believe that it has been only five years or so since the concept of sealing quality wines with anything but a natural tree-bark cork seemed like a weird and offbeat idea.

I think I had been talking about it for years, but looking back over the Wine Advisor archives, I didn't write my first article about the topic until Nov. 1, 1999, in a sermon titled "Farewell to the cork?",
I noted, with "gee whiz" surprise, that the industry was starting to take a closer look at synthetic closures, beer-bottle-style "crown caps" and even the much-maligned metal screwcap. But it all seemed speculative and way off.

"Don't laugh! It could happen," I wrote, but added, "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."

"Eventually"? Why not now?

Less than a year after that article, Plumpjack Winery, a boutique-style Napa operation, garnered headlines with the announcement that it would put up about half of its 1997 Reserve Cabernet under screw caps, selling for a cool $135. (The bottles with traditional corks went for $10 less.) Less upscale wineries soon tried a variety of synthetic stoppers. Screwcaps turned up on bottles, especially white wines, all over New Zealand and Australia. Ditto the U.S., and then California's zany Randall Grahm announced that his Bonny Doon wineries would go cork-free - the entire line would be bottled with screw caps.

Attitudes were changing fast, and few wine enthusiasts seemed to mind finding a synthetic cork or a screwcap on their bottles any more. Europe was the last bastion, perhaps in geographical solidarity with Portugal, where cork-oak producers, a major industry, mounted a strong and well-financed rear-guard action, declaring that artificial corks were as bad for the environment as auto exhaust, and bringing no less than Britain's Prince Charles into the chorus.

But even those last walls are falling now, as came forcibly to my attention this week when I came home with a couple of French whites from the just-arrived 2004 vintage, prepared to pull the corks, and discovered to my pleased surprise that there were no corks to pull. An inexpensive Gascogne white from Domaine de la Salette was plugged with a flesh-colored synthetic; and a modest Macon-Villages from Verget proudly bore a metal screwcap.

When traditional wines of France start arriving with alternative closures, it's a sign of the Millennium ... and I don't think it's over-reaching to suggest that we are close to or perhaps past the tipping point. It still won't happen overnight, and I expect that the finest, most expensive and ageworthy wines will be the last to go over, even though sticking stubbornly to natural cork means accepting a non-trivial failure rate. But I now believe that it won't be another five years before we see the majority of quality, premium-level table wines routinely equipped with screwcaps. Remind me of this in 2010, if you will.

But what about aging? One of the strongest criticisms consistently leveled against alternative closures is that the wines don't age in the same way, and possibly not as well, as with natural cork.

In my best judgement based on considerable tasting, I think this argument has merit when it comes to synthetic corks. Wines stoppered with the solid type synthetic (SupremeCorq and competitors) do not seem to hold reliably for more than a year or two in the bottle before oxidizing prematurely, and there's been a spate of litigation by angry wineries over this. In a separate complaint, this type can be fiendishly difficult to get off the corkscrew, and there've even been reports of them damaging more fragile cork extractors.

The composite synthetics with a smooth skin that surrounds a foamy interior (Neocork and competitors) may be a bit more impervious to air and easier to extract, because they are consciously made to replicate the density and coefficient-of-friction of natural cork; still, the manufacturers themselves now recommend against using them for wines intended for long-term storage.

But this argument is slightly bogus in that synthetics tend to be used primarily on wines intended to be drunk up in the first year or so after bottling, anyway. Use them as intended, and there should be no problem. If your merchant is selling "tired" wines as current stock, that's another story, and its moral is "buyer, beware."

As for screwcaps, evidence mounts that oxidation is not a problem; the issue there is the exact opposite: "Reduction," a chemical process that occurs in wine aging in the absence of oxygen, can cause odd, funky and downright unpleasant aromas in wine. The good news is that these "reductive" aromas are temporary, not permanent, and a skunky, cabbagey wine can be restored to its original quality with vigorous aeration and the old wine-maker's trick of dropping a clean copper penny into the glass to "bind" the stinky sulfur compounds.

It will likely be years yet before wine collectors ultimately decide whether ageworthy wines under screwcap age in the same way as those with natural cork, and for that reason I don't see Bordeaux first-growths and the equivalent under screwcap any time soon. But for most of us, the jury is in: The metal screwcap, long ridiculed as the symbol of cheap, nasty wines that come in gallon jugs, is probably the best available closure for quality wines. You heard it here first, and you'll probably hear it here again.

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Read today's Tasting Reports online

Because of the length of today's report, I've placed my notes on the two referenced wines online rather than burdening your mailboxes with them. If you would like to look them up, you'll find them at these links:

 Verget 2004 Mâcon-Villages ($13.49)

 Domaine de la Salette 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne ($7.99):

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Friday, July 15, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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