News feature
Will cork become the sheep-gut condom of our times?

Jamie Goode goes beyond the tabloid headlines to discuss the Wine International comparative tasting of cork-sealed and screwcapped wines. (Originally appeared in Harpers Wine & Spirit Weekly, 26 September 2003, p 11)

Normally the wine bottle closure debate is a rather specialist (and some might add dull) topic, but in September 2003 it hit the big time. Corks and screwcaps were in the news after national newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Mirror picked up a press release issued by Wine International (formerly Wine Magazine) about a comparative tasting of fine wines sealed with screwcaps and traditional corks. The results of this tasting were published in an article by Publishing Editor, Robert Joseph, in the October 2003 issue of the magazine.

The groundbreaking tasting – the first of its kind – was organized by Wine International and took place at Vinexpo in June. Joseph and colleagues managed to get together fine 49 wines sealed by screwcap, and where possible these were paired alongside identical wines with natural corks.  While many of the wines were from recent vintages, some dated back as far as 1980. In the 40 cases where screwcapped and cork-sealed bottles were available for comparison, each of the panel of some 50 tasters – which included Peter Gago, Michel Rolland and Michel Laroche – was asked to give their preference. The results were striking: for the 40 comparisons, tasters preferred the cork-sealed bottle only once, and opted for the screwcapped bottle a staggering 21 times. 

An interesting issue is raised by these results, which is not discussed in the article. What these results show is that wines sealed with screwcaps in many cases taste different to those sealed with corks. Proponents of screwcaps argue that they taste better, fresher and age more slowly. But this may dissuade old world producers who make wines destined for long bottle ageing from turning to screwcaps, because they will argue that their customers like the way that their wines taste—and develop in the bottle—when they are sealed by corks. This is likely to be an issue that will continue to be debated for some time to come. I asked Joseph whether he’d switch to screwcaps if he was a wine producer. ‘Switching across the board is either brave, foolhardy or suicidal—depending on a producer's relationship with their customers, and those customers’ (retailers' and sommeliers') relationship with the end-user,’ he replied.  ‘While applauding those who've made the leap, I'd put a proportion of all my wines in screwcap and let the market grow into them. My experience at the Bordeaux tasting makes me every bit as keen to use screwcaps for ageable reds as on fresh aromatic whites.’

In his article Joseph also criticised the use of environmental arguments by cork producers keen to persuade consumers against alternatives. He points out that far from being under threat, cork forests in Portugal are actually increasing by 4% a year, and the Iberian lynx, whose demise has been blamed on the switch to alternative closures, has been in decline for a century. ‘I'm delighted that the debate is now out in the open’, Joseph told Harpers. ‘Hopefully there will be a lot more similar tastings - both behind winery doors and in public - and a lot more level-headed analysis of closures in general and the environmental issues (which should not be overlooked).’ He adds that, ‘In future, the cork manufacturers may find that their multi-million-pound campaigns fall on less fertile soil.’

Also included in the article were the results of a survey conducted on the incidence of cork taint at the 2003 International Wine Challenge. Although a tally of cork-tainted bottles has been kept in previous years – in 2001 it was 6% and in 2002 it was 4.6% – for this year all cases of suspected mustiness were verified as cork taint by a superjuror. The results were that of 11 033 bottles sealed with natural corks, 4.9% were considered to be corked. A further 2.79% were faulty for other reasons. This figure tallies well with results from other surveys, and raises further questions about the Wine and Spirit Association’s (WSA) large survey of musty taint, published in June 2002. The WSA’s trial involved more than 14 000 bottles, and came out with a taint rate of 0.7–1.2%, considerably lower than other surveys have reported. However, this study was widely criticised, and a feature in Harpers (11 October 2002) pointed out significant methodological flaws likely to make this a substantial underestimate of the true taint rate. As yet, the WSA have failed to retract their findings. Perhaps the results from the International Wine Challenge Fault Clinic will make them think again?

But Joseph adds that he still thinks there is some resistance in the trade to screwcaps for fine wine. ‘Sommeliers (often, it should be said, ones with Gallic roots) and older British importers and merchants are often certainly still either sceptical or downright negative, and this naturally communicates itself to producers.’ How long does he think it will be until we see fine wines from the old world sealed with screwcaps? ‘Well, Laroche, Paul Blanck and Kuehn are already putting what I think of as fine wine under screwcap and crowncap (in the case of Kuehn) and I'd place a bet that Dourthe will use Stelvins for some higher-level Bordeaux.’ But Joseph adds, ‘I'm not saying that screwcaps are necessarily the answer. The new Zork from Australia [a novel closure due to be launched next year] might work just as well, and there will certainly be other interesting innovations. However, I do believe that cork's days as the most widely used closure for wine are numbered.’ Jospeh predicts that, whatever happens, cork will still have its fans. ‘After all, traditionalists who know where to ask and don't like latex can apparently still buy condoms made from sheep’s intestines - as all were until the 1850s’.

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