Tainted Love

If you’re a consumer of wine like I am, perhaps you have wrestled over the issue of synthetic corks vs. tree-bark corks vs. screwcaps. Which embodies the highest Zen? Well, I don’t always think of myself as a retrogrouch, but until recently, I found myself disdaining the very thought of buying a wine sealed with anything other than corks made of tree bark. Or, grudgingly, those colorful but difficult synthetic corks. But screwcaps? How mortifyingly repugnant!

Yet, despite my slightly antediluvian tendencies, I consider myself reasonably Earth-aware. I’ve since learned that tree-bark production requires many noxious chemicals and lots of production time – to grow the trees, harvest their bark, and produce the cork – only to have a propensity to leak, disintegrate, and therefore oxygenate a wine within the bottle.

I decided that I should question my traditionalist values – at least where wine corks are concerned! So, in advance of a pilgrimage tomorrow to Bonny Doon Vineyards, where they produce wines capped exclusively with screwcaps, I’ve been doing some reading.

It seems that screwcaps are the wave of the future.

In fact, 85% of wines produced in New Zealand are capped with screwcaps, and Australia bottlers are not far behind at 50%. Apparently there is a loss of between 3 to 5% of wine that is sealed in a bottle with a cork. Some say 1 in every 9 bottles corked with bark have a “taint.” I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I don’t wish to lose that much vino precioso.

As for synthetic corks, I knew that they could leak, but I had also suspected that they don’t biodegrade – apparently that hunch is true. I also haven’t liked them for purely functional reasons — those suckers simply refuse to come out of the bottle without me also biting my tongue and cussing. And that’s not good form when the objective is to delight in a good wine. Geez, how many worms must I break on my screwpull? What — use cork pullers to remove synthetic corks? Ha! You’ll needlessly disgrace yourself in front of your friends.

As to screwcaps: if they don’t harm the wine – and the evidence so far seems to bear that out – I’ll consider myself informed and look a little more favorably upon them. At least I won’t have to buy replacement worms.

Randall Grahm, celebrated founder/winemaker at Bonny Doon, is a screwcap evangelist. No doubt he has held many a side-by-side comparison tasting of wines from both cork-sealed and screwcapped bottles. We can probably assume that he and his staff have tasted the exact same wine from the exact same vintage in the exact same glassware, with the only difference being that of the two wines, one was sealed with tree bark and the other wasn’t.

(By the way, if you haven’t visited the Bonny Doon website, it is remarkably inventive and engaging, with plenty of wit and passion behind it. Not your typical winery website! While you’re at it, be sure to watch their “Doontoon” titled “Vive Le Screwcap!”)

From what I have gleaned from my reading, screwcap-sealed wine is typically fresh, crisp, fully flavored, and has a great mouthfeel and a lovely finish, whereas the same cork-sealed wine is typically much more lackluster. This appears to be the evidence with a number of different wine pairings, with and without food. The basic conclusion is that the screwcap versions are fresh and complex, just the way the winemaker intended them to be. The cork versions had been altered by cork contact and extra air exchange – causing the wines to be “corked,” or tainted by mold.

Regardless of the empirical data, you don’t want to keep a library of wines only to find that ten or twenty years down the road, your favorite Petite Sirah tastes moldy. Nevertheless, the wine industry is fast adopting the notion that with the screwcap closure, you are guaranteed that the wine you taste when you open your bottle will be as close as possible to the original wine. You won’t have mold taint, nor will you have issues with crumbled corks.

As someone who has scruples about screwpulls, I hope to find tomorrow that it’s worth giving up the pomp and ritual of pulling a cork out of a bottle to enjoy the best wine possible.

Now if screwcaps could just deliver my favorite all-time best sound in the world. I think that’s what I’ll miss most. But I will look to the future, if it means embracing stored wines that are just as good as the day we first tasted them.

Someday in the not-too-far-off future, when the mass demand and supply of wines — both large-operation and boutique — reach critical mass, we retrogrouches are going to puzzle our children when we ask “What is the sound of one cork popping?”

~winehiker

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One thought on “Tainted Love

  1. Pingback: Are box wines a thing of the future? | Winehiker Witiculture

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