The next time you hear the unmistakeable "pop" of a cork coming out of a bottle, savour it and commit it to memory. A decade from now the sound of corks popping may be as foreign to wine drinkers as the sound of a scratchy phonograph needle cranking out a tune is to owners of MP3 players.
For the unaware, corks are no longer what they used to be. They still work effectively as a stopper but their propensity to taint or completely spoil the flavour of wine is driving winemakers and more and more consumers crazy.
Noticeably defective corks, or worse, cork taint mistaken for bad juice, is the modern day wine industry's dirty little secret. According to many prominent producers, they simply arent going to put up with it any more.
The principle compound responsible for cork taint in bottled wine is 2, 4, 6-trichloranisole, or TCA. Cork taint ranges from the obvious dank, mouldy, cardboard, fruitless aromas to the barely noticeable bottle that suffers from knocked down fruit characters that consumers mistakenly associate with the winemaking, not a faulty cork. Worldwide, it is estimated that TCA contamination costs wine producers an astounding US $1 billion per annum in spoiled bottles.
At New Zealands Felton Road, an ultra-hip pinot noir producer in Central Otago, they claim all serious wine industry research is coming up with about the same figure: 5 per cent of wine closed in cork suffers from noticeable cork taint. The winery describes TCA as an unbelievably flavourful, albeit foul, compound so much so that you can detect a single drop dissolved in 50,000 litres of water.
That unimaginably low ratio means that to eliminate TCA in wine, the cork industry needs to get taint under 2 parts per trillion (or a thousand million) before the problem is solved. Many others think the level needs to be below 1 part per trillion.
Its the subtle tainting of otherwise excellent wine that really rubs winemakers the wrong way because it takes an expert to identify it as corked; the rest of the public simply dismisses the wine as tasting off, or worse, poorly made.
At wineries like Penfolds, where everyone involved in the making and blending of wine is a highly experienced taster, chief winemaker Peter Gago says the failure rate for outright "corked" wines plus those that are simply faulty and/or tainted can be as high as 10 per cent.
Bonny Doons Randall Graham states that number doesnt really address the bottles that are affected ever so slightly, making the wine slightly different than the wine next to it. "In that case, the number has to be much higher. You could even argue that 100 per cent of the bottles are corked, because they all taste different by virtue of having been sealed with a cork," he says.
The search for an alternative closure has been long and ongoing. Ironically, a reasonable solution is staring wineries and consumers in the face every day its the Stelvin closure or screw cap. (Stelvin is a trademark of Pechiney, a French company, however, it tends to be used generically for all screw caps.)
The problem is that twist-off screw caps readily accepted on expensive extra virgin olive oil and upscale bottled water in our finest restaurants are considered a marketing liability by class-conscious wineries. Perhaps more importantly, a large percentage of the trade believe its the romance of the cork that really sells wine.
Aesthetics and romance aside, the utility of the screw cap is unsurpassed. In the case of wine the new screw cap isnt the same as those used for other food and drink: it has been specially developed to last longer to protect fine wine over an extended aging period in the bottle.
Still, the screw cap faces many challenges, not least of which is the question of aging fine wine under metal. Noted Australian wine author and critic James Halliday says, "Some people have the idea that the development of wine with a Stelvin (screw cap) closure will be artificially arrested. Not so; there is sufficient oxygen in the wine and in the head space to allow that part of development which requires oxygen to take place, and what is more much of the development will take place anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen)."
Pop of the cork and romance aside and we grant its a big aside I believe consumers are more than ready to pass on corked wines and/or the dreaded tainted wine that can affect one in every 10 bottles. And for those customers not yet ready to identify cork taint or even the fully "corked" bottles that come their way, I think it is the duty of the trade to protect them from bogus bottles.
That said, the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome plays a large part in the cork versus screw cap issue. Just ask any winery not using screw caps or synthetic corks and the stock answer is, well switch to screw cap or synthetic when the big boys do. Unless, of course, a major retailer insists they make the switch, as many UK supermarkets have already done and, amazingly, the wine is available in screwcap. Supermarket buyers sleep better knowing the failure rate associated with cork closures is essentially non-existent for screw cap bottles and the fruit component of the wines is generally fresher and cleaner.
Delicate aromas such as those found in cool-climate rieslings and sauvignon blanc are tailor-made for screw caps. In Australia, rieslings have gone from being exclusively cork-sealed to the majority being screw-capped in little more than three vintages. Ditto for New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and the trend is gathering significant momentum in the red wine market. Hip, super-premium cabernets from the Margaret River region of Western Australia are joining the rush to screw cap, as are pinot noirs from New Zealand.
Ultimately, consumer response will determine the success or failure of this innovative closure but whats clearer than ever is the screw cap is not going away.
Try some for yourself.
Bargain screw cap wines available in B.C.
Les Fumées Blanches Sauvignon 2003, Languedoc, France. $11.33
Lindemans Bin 95 Sauvignon Blanc 2004, South Eastern Australia. $11.49
St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc 2004, Okanagan Valley, B.C. $11.90
St. Hallett Poachers Blend 2003, Barossa Valley, South Australia. $12.95
Mission Hill Five Vineyards Dry Riesling 2003, Okanagan Valley, B.C. $12.99
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Riesling 2003, Coonawarra, South Australia. $14.99
Madfish Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon, Western Australia. $16.99
Yalumba Viognier Y Series 2004, Barossa Valley, South Australia. $17.99
Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Marlborough, New Zealand. $17.99
Dr. Pauly Riesling 2003, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. $19.95
Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin 2003, Marlborough, New Zealand. $19.95
Pepi Sauvignon Blanc 2003, California. $19.99
Wolf Blass Riesling Gold Label 2003, South Australia. $19.99
Phoque Rouge 2003, Southern Rhone Valley, France. $9.99
Jérôme Seguin Côtes du Rhône 2003, Rhone Valley, France. $13.99
Oyster Bay Merlot 2002, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. $18.99
VF Lasira 2002 Syrah Grenache, Costières de Nîmes, France. $12.99
Cypress Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, California. $16.99
Bonny Doon Ca' del Solo Big House Red 2002, California. $19.95
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com