The closure debate has moved on quite a bit since the days when it was practically pitched warfare between the screwcap advocates (mainly Australia and New Zealand) and those who liked the traditional solution of natural cork. Now there’s a sort of truce.
For commercial wines, few have a problem with screwcaps. They’re taint free, they are consistent, and they are remarkably convenient. I drink screwcapped wines all the time, and I don’t have a problem with them.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that wines sealed with different closures do taste subtly different, and that this difference is exaggerated with time in bottle. We know this from cork alone: even in untainted bottles, old cork-sealed wines from the same case show some variation, presumably reflecting the variation in oxygen transmission that occurs with different natural corks.
So are screwcaps ideal for sealing fine wines? And fine red wines? Aside from the issue of reduction, which is too big to tackle here, the question is, what do you prefer based on the taste? Almost all screwcapped wines from Australia and New Zealand are sealed with a tin/saran liner, and the metal layer means that they have very little oxygen transmission. So wines sealed this way taste different to wines sealed with natural cork.
So, the big question is, given the choice – and assuming your cork is a good one – which do you think tastes better?
I had the chance to try this out at Pegasus Bay winery in New Zealand’s Waipara, over dinner. I tasted two versions of the 2003 Pinot Noir, blind, at 10 years of age:
Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (screwcap)
Fine, fresh and cherryish. Sweet, lively and aromatic with supple cherry fruit and also a bit of richness. Slightly cola-ish lively tangy finish. Drinkable style, now fully evolved and at its peak. 92/100
Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (cork)
Sweet and with a lovely texture, showing nice aromatics. Rich, bold, fine and expressive with cherry and plum fruit and a hint of earth. Expressive and wonderfully textured, showing some evolution. 94/100
More recently, I was sent two samples (by accident) of the Penfolds Bin 28 2012, one sealed with a natural cork, one sealed with a screwcap. I spent a couple of nights comparing the wines (one argument is that screwcapped wines need time to open out). Both were nice wines, but the cork-sealed wine was nicer. It had more harmony on the palate, and less edginess. Texturally it was finer. Small details, perhaps: they were both recognizable as the same wine. But these small details are what you pay your money for with top quality wines. The difference in scores was just a point, so it wasn’t a huge deal. But I had a preference.
What about a triangle test? I was with Vincent Cruège at Chateau La Louviere in September and he had two bottles of the 2006 white, one sealed with screwcap and one sealed with cork. So he gave me a triangle test blind. Two glasses were poured from one bottle and one was from the other. Could I tell the difference? I thought that wine 1 was the outlier, because it reminded me a bit of an Australian white wine. 2 and 3 were the same, and nicer. The difference in score? 4 points. A strong preference.
Screwcap: distinctive limey fruit. Maybe a bit reduced. Spicy and vivid with some toast. Angular and a bit disjointed. 89/100
Cork: lovely focused wine with some richness. Great balance with pear and grapefruit characters, and just a hint of fennel and toast. 93/100
So this has all got me thinking. I hate cork taint, and the variation that occurs with cork. But when you get a good one, I seem to prefer the taste of the wine compared with a wine sealed with a tin/saran lined screwcap. What price do you want to pay for consistency? For commercial wines, does it matter? For fine wines, I think it might.