Pacific Northwest | January 11, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 11, 2004seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL SCHMID

UNCORKED
Lay your fears to rest and discover new life with screwcaps
 
 Illustration
It's time for a little bit of closure regarding closures. Time to bid farewell to an old friend — an outmoded remnant of 17th-century technology, as one winery puts it — the cork.

For centuries, cork has been the preferred closure for virtually all of the world's great wines, and most of the not-so-great. It's natural, pliable and attractive. Once pulled, a cork can easily be pushed back into a bottle to prevent spillage, ward off fruit flies or save the good stuff for later. Corks may be stamped with interesting information, sniffed for tell-tale signs of an "off" wine (more on this in a moment) and saved as souvenirs.

So what's wrong with corks?

In a word (a very long word): 2,4,6 trichloroanisole; or TCA as it is commonly known. Though the billion-dollar cork industry insists it "taint" so, the problem of TCA, which gives wines a disagreeable musty odor, is thought to affect roughly 5 percent of all wines.
 
RECOMMENDED
RIESLINGS

Gunderloch 2002 "Diva" Riesling ($18); Monchhof Estate 2002 Riesling ($12); Mitchell 2002 "Watervale" Riesling ($18); Penfolds 2002 "Reserve Bin" Riesling ($19); Nepenthe 2001 Riesling ($17); Wynns 2002 "Coonawarra Estate" Riesling ($12); Lindemans 2002 "Bin 75" Riesling ($8); Rosemount Estate 2002 Riesling ($10).

OTHER WHITES

Goldwater 2003 "New Dog" Sauvignon Blanc ($20); Neudorf 2001 Chardonnay ($48); Goldwater 2002 "Roseland" Chardonnay ($22); Mitchell 2002 Semillon ($17); Two Tone Farm 2002 Chardonnay ($12).

REDS

Mitchell 2001 "Peppertree Vineyard" Shiraz ($26); Bonny Doon 2001 "Le Cigare Volant" ($32); Bonny Doon 2002 "Cardinal Zin" ($20); Argyle 2002 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($18).

TCA is a chemical compound whose presence in wine can be detected in quantities as low as two or three parts per trillion. If you have ever heard the expression "corked" wine, it refers to this musty scent — like an old trunk — which effectively masks the fruit and kills the freshness of the wine.

The problem of corked wines goes well beyond the inconvenience (and expense) of finding the occasional bottle whose bark worsens its bite. Even in low concentrations, TCA can dampen a wine's natural fruit and flavor. How many lightly corked bottles are mistaken for inferior wine when, in fact, the cork was the problem?

This is why wineries and others have been investing huge sums to develop alternative closures. Several manufacturers produce plastic corks or corks composed of cellulose. A few have tried crown caps (like beer bottles) and some California producers are promoting a twist-off "Metacork."

But in the opinion of many producers, most wine writers and an increasing number of wine retailers, the hands-down winner is the screwcap, often referred to as the Stelvin closure. The screwcap must win on pragmatic grounds, for it surely loses to the cork where tradition and aesthetics count the most. In fact, the surest way to identify a wine snob these days is to ask for an opinion on screwcapped wines. Count the wrinkled noses in the crowd and you'll know where the snobs are.

Nonetheless, the screwcap appears to work quite well at protecting the wine. Accusations that wines won't age under a screwcap are now being contested, with studies and experts pointing to the fact that they will age, if given the chance.

Screwcaps are easy to open. They require no extra tools; they don't balk at resealing the bottle, as plastic corks often do; they don't leak. Best of all, they no longer signify that a wine is inferior.

These days you'll find screwcaps on a variety of wines from around the world.

The revolution has been led by the Australians, who bottle many of their rieslings this way. Not far behind are the New Zealanders, putting some of their finest sauvignon blancs under screwcaps.

In California, Plumpjack made headlines by announcing it would offer its best reds in screwcaps, having tried plastic corks with no success. "I saw servers breaking the necks off of the bottles trying to extract the synthetics," general manager John Conover told me recently. "So I looked at screwcaps." The changeover wasn't easy, requiring special bottles, different bottling equipment and ongoing consumer education.

More recently, Sonoma-Cutrer and Bonny Doon have begun offering their best wines in screwcaps. Bonny Doon's intense, delicious Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style red wine, Le Cigare Volant, is now bottled "en screwcap," and last year the winery staged a series of events celebrating the death of the cork with all-black food and eulogies (see the Web site at www.deathofthecork.com).

In Oregon, WillaKenzie Estate and Argyle are promoting a corkless future. WillaKenzie is bottling 15 percent of its wines with screwcaps, testing the waters for consumer acceptance, while explaining that "we believe this is the only alternative which gives the customer 12 bottles in every case that taste the same."

There is little doubt that screwcaps will gain acceptance as more and more quality wines use them. At the same time, there is not even a remote chance that corks will disappear, nor would I want them to. But as someone who pulls about 5,000 corks a year, I believe that screwcaps are the best alternative and may ultimately prove to be the better closure overall.

In fact, I'll go way out on a limb and tell you that, should you encounter a screwcapped offering from Australia, New Zealand or any respected American winery, the odds are that the wine inside will be as good as or better than any of its cork-topped peers.

Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com. Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.

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