This is where it gets really interesting. The question of the ability of wine to age under screwcap is a pretty deep issue. Some winemakers are all for it while others have the bungee cord strapped safely around their ankles and are pretty sure it’s safe but continue to look over the edge and question. This is quite understandable. The effort that goes into making a wine is pretty labor intensive as well as emotionally intensive. If one is not almost 100% sure of the end result they may not want to put their hard earned work at risk right? But wait a second. It is generally agreed that 5% of all wine made is corked with a slightly larger percentage that are at least flawed to some extent. So why isn’t everyone jumping on the screwcap band wagon? Well, can wine mature under this closure and for how long? Will it reduce and go flabby without some minute oxygen transfer working its way through the wine encouraging the softening of tannins and integration of fruit? Will the screwcap last a good number of years with out deteriorating? These are questions being asked and discussed in length throughout the wine world.

When the winemakers of Clare Valley decided to group together and release 250,000 bottles of Riesling under screwcap they were taking a huge risk. The idea of this alternate closure was not fully understood (even to this day it is not fully understood) yet they staked a lot of money and hard work on the idea at a time when the world was not totally ready for such a thing out of a kind of desperation. At that time here in the US we associated screwcap closures with “wine” like Boone Farms.

Ah, a little Strawberry Hill on a hot summer night. Don’t deny it. Y’all know what I’m talking about.

And you can bet they didn’t do it for fun. They were collectively exhausted with wine going bad from TCA (corked wine) and took a risk in hopes of a new way to age their wine. As I have researched the issue of the screwcap the main reason for switching form cork is…well, corked wine. Pesticides and cork tree preservatives can sometimes be contaminated. When the cork is made and used as a closure the contamination can produce TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) in a wine. It is very complex and scientific but generally the way I understand it is that airborne fungi interact with compounds called chlorophenols which are thought to form as a result of bleaching corks before bottling and produce TCA in the wine. It only takes a very small amount of the stuff to ruin a wine and it is usually quite detectable as wet cardboard. There is nothing worse than opening that special bottle of wine and not being able to enjoy it.

For a winemaker this is scary stuff. And as stated above 5% of all wine has this problem. But like I said this idea of the screwcap is not fully understood. What is understood is there is no such thing as a corked wine with this closure. People are willing to age their wines with the closure but many need proof. And that proof hasn’t come about yet. Yes, the Clare Valley Initiative produced some great results with reports of their Rieslings from that famous 2000 bottling tasting wonderful now but what about red wine? What about those famous First Growth chateaus? Penfolds released a red wine bottled under screwcap in 1996 but I haven’t found any statements as to how the wine is doing. I have also read that there are winemakers in Burgundy that have bottled a portion of some of their reds and whites under the screwcap but we are years away from knowing how it will turn out.

As you can see this is still a, “drawing board” situation. Until the wine world fully understands the screwcap and sees hard evidence then cork will be the way to go. There is also the issue of deterioration. Wine aging wine with a cork closure the cork should be replaced every thirty years or so. There have been reports that screwcaps last anywhere between 10 and 15 years. This could or could not be a problem. I am not sure but it would seem easier to replace a screwcap rather than a cork.

And then there is reduction. This is where a wine forms sulfuric compounds through an interaction with hydrogen sulfide and looses its flavor and goes flabby. It is different than the contamination of TCA. There is no wet cardboard here but rotten egg on the nose. Very off-putting. There are two sides to the reduction issue. Some feel that when a wine has no minute oxygen transfer to soften a wine over a long period of time and it is left to its own phenols and other compounds and it can breakdown in such a way that it strips the wine wine of flavor (that interaction I mentioned above). Others believe that the presence of hydrogen sulfide is a natural occurrence of yeast stressing out as a result of a lack of nitrogen (they derive their energy from nitrogen to do the good work of turning sugars into ethanol) and if a winemaker is not careful in the production process this hydrogen sulfide by-product will be in the bottle and it will aid in reduction.

This wine geek supports the crewcap. I feel that if we can find a way to develop the product a little more and learn to correctly adjust the plastic seal accordingly we can age wine for quite some time. I did read somewhere that red wines that have been aged for a small amount of time under screwcap tasted neutral. I kind of glazed over this minute piece of info because I wasn’t sure what neutral meant. Is is meant to say the wine lacked complexity or that it was wonderfully neutral retraining all the supple flavors one wants in an aged wine?

For me (and I am just a wine geek and by no means an expert) what it boils down to are those strong minded winemakers out there taking the risk and aging their wines with the closure for a reason. When those wines are ready and when the reports come out then we will know. A lot of things have happened in the wine world that compromises the integrity of this natural phenomenon (oak chips, Constellation Brands, Yellow Tail just to name a few) and even though there are still questions out there at least this is an experiment for the greater good of wine culture.

In the meantime let’s all sit back and CRACK open a nice bottle and watch what happens.

Next week I am going to finish up with the cost and environmental practicality of the screwcap versus the cork. Cheers!


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Anonymous on August 30, 2008 at 3:58 am

    I think that given a 5% chance of cork taint versus a ??% chance of reduction – I’d take the reduction. At least reduced wines can be decanted a little and come back to life.

    I read that the industry is working on this out at UC Davis – trying to make a screwcap that breathes just like a cork. That would be the best of all worlds I think


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