Closures for fine wines

Just finished my next Gros Lees column for The World of Fine Wine. It’s on the subject of wine bottle closures, but this time I’m focusing solely on fine wine.

I won’t steal the thunder from the piece, but I will just mention one of the points I make, which is that the perspective you have on closures for fine wine probably depends on whether you are in the southern or northern hemispheres.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, the chances are that your perspective is thus: cork really sucks, and there’s an alternative that we’ve been using happily for the last decade that seems to work really well for both cheap and expensive wines – the screwcap with a tin/saran liner.

If you are in Europe or North America, the perspective is different: what’s the problem with cork? Taint rates for serious wines are very low, and we’re happy with the way the wines develop under cork over many decades. The occasional dodgy bottle is a price we are willing to pay for this. It would be an unnecessary risk to use screwcaps, because at the very least we know the wines will develop differently, and differently might not be better.

Indeed, it quite surprising how much of a non-issue this is in fine wine circles. When the Bordeaux 2009 wines are released, they’ll probably fetch record prices, and all the wines will be cork sealed. There’s simply no impetus for change, and from a southern hemisphere perspective this must be very surprising.

7 comments to Closures for fine wines

  • Bart

    I live in Australia and given the choice of two closures for a single wine (some wines here are released under both cork and screwcap), I would always take the wine under screwcap.

    I agree that there certainly isn’t any impetus for change in the short term. I’m keen to see how things will stack up in say 2030 when a selection of Bordeaux 2009 is put up against Margaret River or Coonawarra 2009 under their respective closures in 2030. Maybe an unfavourable result wouldn’t even matter to those who buy Bordeaux.

  • Andrew

    Jamie,
    Until such time as Amorim replace my corked 1995 Roussaeu Chambertin I think I’ll prefer rational scientific progress to tree bark. I believe pharmaceutical companies stopped using the dirty stoppers last century. Also seem to use more carbon returning corked bottles.
    cheers – Andrew

  • Jamie,

    It is curious that there is such a difference in opinion between hemispheres. There are many factors at play, in Australia it seemed to be a combination of previous use, support from critics, retailers and initially the Clare valley riesling producers. All together at one point in time – circa 2000. From this point it has been unstoppable.

    I guess without all of these push factors, more or less all at once, the uptake will be slow.

    Do you think the issue with prem ox / random oxidation, notably in White Burgundy is also a cork issue and that cork quality varies with the type of season they have – given it is an agricultural product(poor year would presumably increase oxygen permeability).

  • Jamie

    In my view it is a case of tradition against modernity. Old world producers are willing to take on some influence from the new world but will not take it as far as altering closures for investment grade wines. Whay would they? Indeed, no one knows what a 40 year old Lafite would taste like under screw cap. It is not worth the risk. There is also the cork trade to consider. Personally, I think wines to be drunk young – especially aromatic whites – fare better under screw cap whilst wines to be laid down should remain under cork until extensive testing is conducted; the results of which will be unkown for the next 15 odd years!

  • Martin V

    It is not so much the producers as the consumers/re-sellers. Today at my local wine warehouse in Adelaide I bought a Beaujolais from Fessy and a La Chablisienne Chablis both under screw cap. So the north knows how to do it, just doesn’t believe the consumers are ready. At the same shop there was a large range of Italian, Spanish and French wines most with screw cap that I am sure are bottled with some sort of colmated, bleached plastic-cork mish mash for northern markets.
    Nick – the 15 year comment is irrelevent. Screw cap wines have been around much longer then this.

  • Simon T

    Q ; Who drinks screwcap wines ?
    ST perception : fairly broad but consumers who are most comfy with the packaging are probably UK/NZ/Aus/USA based and have probably become ‘wine consumers’ in the last 10-15 years.

    Q ; Who drinks 1er and Grand Cru french ?
    ST perception : (aside from crude bankers) Japanese, Indian, Chinese markets and consumers in UK/USA/Mainland Europe who have been drinking wine as a part of their life for many years.

    Q ; Do consumers in Group 1 become those in Group 2 or as they mature will it alter the dynamic ?
    ST perception : If I were working for Margaux, Haut Brion et al and given the longevity of the wines this is a question I need to be asking myself now. Is cork a paradigm and like other market shifts, will the screwcap desire catch them unawares ? The world moves fast and consumers are becoming more impatient with ‘disappointment’. Perhaps parallel tests are already running and if not it would make sense to pack <50 cases to assess vs a cork closure benchmark over the coming 5,10, 20 years.

    Who am I ?
    I feel more like a Group 1 than a Group 2, but for a special anniversary, my minds eye pictures cork closure, dusty bottle and the enchanting sound of the cork freeing itself with a pleasingly demure pop rather than the crack of the screwcap. But what about in 20 years time ……?

  • graemeg

    In the southern hemisphere then, the cork companies have reaped what they’ve sown. By fobbing off this part of the world with second rate rubbish for too many years, they’ve lost the market.
    But as Andrew points out above, when a bottle is ruined, it’s 100% of that bottle. It’s no consolation to a consumer that it only represents 1% of wines bottled.
    For a food-product packaging failure rate, it must be the world’s highest – and I suspect it’s always just ridden on the coat tails of vintage variation, storage conditions, and all the other mysteries of wine. It surprises me that consumers are so ‘undemanding’.
    G

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