Vol. 2 No. 27…Screw it! No more, put a cork in it!…and why!

TB is a hopeless romantic…the bottle of wine, a candlelit dinner, presenting the bottle, extracting the cork, hearing that little ‘pop’ as it comes out of the bottle…you get the picture.

My first experiences with screw caps on wine (sic) were Thunderbird, Ripple, Boone’s Farm, Red Mountain, all with those damnable accompanying hangovers…the morning after the night before. But then TB grew up! No more screw caps…not now, not ever!

Fast forward 50 (FIFTY) years and look what we have: wine in a box! Wine in can’s! …but screw cap’s? No freakin’ way!

Remember these are no ordinary screw caps. They are technologically engineered (aka new and improved), and mandated by the problem of cork taint which impacts as many as one in ten bottles. Some say they have never had a ‘corked’ bottle, others who are super-sensitive have had several…in any event the wine smells ‘skunky’. Once you smell it, you won’t forget it.

Also, recall that most wine is drunk within 30 days of purchase, but what happens if you are a collector or merely like to age your wines…not fun to spend $100 or more on a bottle of wine and have it smell funny (TB is told that on very old bottles there is ‘bottle stink’ – an ugly phrase – but that unless it is tainted fades with the recommended decanting).

What to do about it? Re-cork it and return it to your retailer for a refund or replacement – chances are the second bottle won’t have it but it could. Again, if you have stored it for years you won’t have this option because it could be due to improper storage or other factors.

Now imagine you as a winemaker. You have done everything right; you try to get the wine to the apogee of what you want it to taste like and then you bottle it, and with expensive corks. While producers try to make the corks as consistent as possible.

Stelvin produces two caps.I was told about them by Graham Painter, the Founder and CEO of NZ Wine Navigator which is an importer (exporter to the U.S.). He said that they allow for an oxygen exchange, something I had not heard before, thus allowing the caps to breathe.

I went to the best source I know, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. Not only is Grahm one of the luminaries of California wine and the first volume producer to use screw caps, eventually to all of his wines, both white and red!

Grahm explained to me that the producer of the caps/capsules is Stelvin. They, in turn, produce two capsules: Saranex, which is more ‘oxygen exclusionary’ and suitable for wines to be consumed relatively soon, and Saratin, which is slightly less exclusionary than a standard cork but about the same as a premium cork, and thus requires slightly less Sulfur Dioxide (which some drinkers cannot tolerate, as with herbicides or insecticides). He adds that in the barrel, oxygen exchange is approximately 1ppm per month!

Back to the winemaker: he/she decides the optimal time to bottle the wine. Changes due to oxidation are not desirable, except over long periods of time. For this reason, vintage Ports are bottled young, after just 6 months to 1 year in barrel, and that is why they shouldn’t be consumed for twenty years or more, hence the English custom of buying a ‘pipe’ when a child is born assuring that they will have some of it for the rest of their lives – how big is a pipe? It is a barrel of 550 litres!!! FIVE HUNDRED FIFTY LITRES. We Americans should be so lucky.

So, will Stelvins replace corks? Given the fact that it takes years for a cork tree to regrow its bark, and the increased demand for corks, especially premium ones, winemakers are turning to synthetics and plastics. TB’s bet is it’s the screw cap that wins out. I have opened too many bottles where the cork has deteriorated and some that were obviously ‘corked’. A skilled sommelier can open one without it appearing to be a screw cap. Time will tell…but to me, it is what is inside that counts, right?

TB ©2016

Vol. 2 No. 18…getting ‘closure’

One of the blogs I subscribe to is The Wine Economist by Mike Veseth. In his latest, he did a great piece on cork this week. It got me to thinking on several counts.

While the situation is improving cork taint continues to affect wine. What if one out 12 bottles is infected with it (probably less than that but who knows)? That bottle may come back to the retailer and then up the chain to the producer, and it might have been perfectly good.  Like the way diners send back their dinners as not tasting right to get a free meal, usually after they have eaten a substantial amount of it.

On my recent trip to Spain and Portugal (yes, Portugal, cork capital of the world), more than one winemaker told me they would like to see corks go away. Why?

Let’s consider this: do you know the difference between a Vintage Port and a Late Bottled Vintage Port? If you said the Vintage Port is aged longer you would be wrong. It is only in barrel for 1-2 years. Where a good Tawny or Late Bottled Vintage, or Colheita (single vintage), will be aged for 10,20, 40, 50 years (I tasted a Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest Port at the winery and it was truly special), the Vintage Port is naturally aged in the bottle. Also, it more or less has to be drunk within 48 hours, whereas a Tawny or LBV could last up to two weeks.

What is the point? The point is other than the affectation, it could just as well have a screw cap known as a Stelvin closure. The Aussie’s and Kiwi’s used it first, but it took Randall Graham at Bonny Doon to dare to use them in the United States. It is now becoming acceptable to use the Stelvin for white wine but if its a red and you aren’t going to lay it down for five or ten years you want cork. But seriously, is there a difference?

Consider that capsule that encases the cork. Just how much air transfer to you think is going on? My guess is ZERO. However, over time the cork can shrink, get dry, and let air in. Why take the risk IF you know that the wine is released late.

Two examples: Chateau Belle-Vue, a Bordeaux style red from Lebanon. It is a beautiful wine. Guess what the current release is? 2007! In Portugal I bought a bottle of Douro table wine at Quinto do Infantado. Vintage, 2010! Then, in Priorat, Spain, three bottles of Clos de l’Obac, different varietals 2005 -2007. In Ibiza I bought a bottle of a local wine I liked with a 2002 vintage.

Get the picture? These wines don’t need aging, they can be drunk for any special occasion. So who needs a cork? Only someone who needs to show off their somme skills with a waiter’s corkscrew. One last point: how many of you have actually had an old vintage wine? You only have a few minutes to enjoy it and then it might taste like tea. Ah but the romance. You know the answer of what to do when the somme hands you the cork to sniff after he has, right? Throw it across the room!