Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cork. To buy or not to buy . . .

The Cork vs Screwcap debate is a well trodden path within wine circles. If it’s not apparent from what I have written then I am very firmly in the screwcap camp. Eschewing all the real and pseudo debates in this area, my reason for being pro-screw cap is very, very simple. I literally cannot remember the last time I opened a screwcap sealed wine that had a closure issue. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but in reality it’s few and far between. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about cork. I reckon my cork issue rate is at least 10%. That is, at least 1 in 10 cork sealed wines that I consume (or at least attempt to) have some sort of issue. Very mild TCA, obvious TCA, and oxidation are all issues I encounter all too often.

And yes, wines under screwcap age. I’ve had numerous 5 year through to 13 year old screwcap wines, and they are aging wonderfully. People who argue otherwise may as well be arguing that the earth is flat.

All of which leads me to an ongoing dilemma of mine. Whether to purchase cork sealed wines or not? Firstly, I do buy cork sealed wines. Possibly my favourite wine is Barolo, and therefore there’s no avoiding purchasing cork closures there at this stage (though the first good Barolo producer that uses screwcap will win my hard earned).

My issue, however, is more in Australia, where screwcap is now the dominant closure and no one bats an eyelid when opening a screwcap wine. It has become the norm. Despite this, there remains wineries that continue to use cork, and predominantly these are for premium wines. Whereas you’d struggle to find a $20 Australian wine under cork nowadays, jump up to $50 or more, and they are far more prevalent. Of course this seems to me entirely counterintuitive. Making a premium product and sealing it with a closure that has a higher failure rate doesn’t make much sense to me.

In any case, at these price points you get some of the more interesting and desirable Australian wines. Often single site wines that represent a winemaker’s best efforts. It might be, for example, a Pinot Noir that I love the sound of. With the wonderful development of Pinot in this country in the past two decades, however, there is more than just one $50+ Pinot that I lust after. They are now numerous, and with a monthly wine budget that I try to be reasonably disciplined about (not always successfully), unfortunately I can’t purchase all of them and therefore have to make decisions. As a result, a wine’s closure has become a key factor in helping me decide what wine I buy. I might be trying to make a decision between two exciting Victorian Pinot producers. If one is under screwcap and the other under cork, then that will make my decision a much easier one.

Now, if a winery wants to bottle their wine under cork for historical, romantic, or export reasons I can completely understand this. But why not give consumers a choice? Bottle half under cork and half under screwcap. If people still want to buy wine under cork they can, but I’d of thought that within Australia at least the screwcap allocation will sell out a lot more quickly than cork. Moreover, doing this consistently over say a decade or so, would enable a winery to genuinely determine which closure is the best for their wine. Quite often when I ask a winemaker why they are still using cork (in a polite manner), I get a somewhat testy and emotional response. Now I’m all for passion and emotion in wine, but in this instance I’d rather hear a response along the lines “We bottled a small batch of wines under screwcap for 5 years, and at the end of it, we still found cork to be the better closure for our wines”. Even if I still might disagree, I’d respect this response a lot more than the throw away lines you normally get.

Greatness in any field involves leaving no stone unturned. Not at the very least exploring how screwcap works with your wine, is a step back from this endeavour.


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