Wine Talk: The cork conundrum

Is the cork still the ideal way to keep wine in the bottle?

selection of wine corks 370 (photo credit: MCT)
selection of wine corks 370
(photo credit: MCT)
Three hundred years ago, the cork was the great new discovery of the wine world. Finally there was a closure that would expand to fit the diameter of a bottle, which would keep white wines fresh and allow red wines to mature gracefully over a number of years.
It also had the right quality image. How wine lovers loved the sound of the pop as the cork was drawn from the bottle.
Furthermore, the whole procedure of wine service in a restaurant was based on the theater of extracting the cork.
However, 300 years later, the world has advanced in so many incredible ways, yet wine is still saddled with the heavy glass bottle and cork stopper. The truth is that we still have not found anything better than a bit of tree bark with which to close our wines.
Fifty percent of cork comes from Portugal.
However, a reduction of quality control due to overproduction and a certain complacency among producers had its effect. Today, the natural cork is under scrutiny as never before. There is no doubt that it is still the best closure for fine wines with its ability to let oxygen in without letting wine out. Also, anything other than natural cork still tends to be regarded as a downgrade by the wine consumer. So it is the best closure in theory. In practice, though, the results are less satisfactory.
Problems can arise with bottle variation, and the pesky problem of corky wines rears its head too often. Contrary to what you may think, a corky wine does not have bits of cork floating in it.
Nor is it a synonym for any bad wine. A “corky” wine is affected by cork taint, which basically causes to wine to smell of wet newspaper or cardboard. This slightly musky smell masks the fruity aroma.
Sometimes the damage is slight, the fruitiness is not totally submerged and the wine may still be enjoyed. Other times, a wine may be rendered undrinkable.
What makes a minor problem into a major one is that industry insiders estimate that maybe five percent of bottles are affected this way.
Some of the alternatives appeal because they are less expensive than natural cork.
The Twin Top cork is made up of cork particles glued together and enclosed with two discs of natural cork at the top and bottom. This provides a good choice for mid-priced wines. A cheaper version is the agglomerated cork, which is basically ground cork stuck together. This is usually an answer for simpler wines.
In the late 1990s there was a new wave of interest in synthetic corks.
Barry Saslove of Saslove Winery was the first Israeli to use this. Tests have proven successful, particularly for younger wines not expected to age. The main complaint is that sometimes it is difficult to put them back into the bottle after extraction.
By far, the best answer to date has been screw cap closures. Jancis Robinson MW, one of the world’s most famous wine writers, once said the perfect closure would be a screw cap that went pop when opened. In the 2000s, use of the screw cap has really taken off. In Israel, the Tishbi and Tabor wineries were the pioneers, and they started with their aromatic whites. The rest of the world has no compunction about putting fine wines, even quality red wines, under screw cap.
Today, 70% of New Zealand and 90% of Australian wines are bottled with screw caps. Tesco, the largest wine retailer in the UK, prefers to buy screw cap bottles.
Furthermore, a recent survey suggests that 85% of regular wine drinkers accept screw caps. Only eight years ago, the figure was 41%.
There are also developments on the cork front. The new “Diam” corks are made from natural cork, which is ground up into small particles. By using an effective cleaning process on the individual particle, all the aromas and potential aromas are stripped out. The particles are then molded back together. These corks have so far proven to be resistant to the TCA contaminant, and their use will surely increase. The downside is that they have the appearance of an agglomerated cork.
My company uses a wide range of closures, depending on the price and quality of the label. We bottle our Carmel Limited Edition, Mediterranean and Single Vineyard wines with natural cork. Our Appellation series of regional wines have the new Diam corks. Private Collection wines are stoppered with Twin Top corks.
The Selected range of wines are bottled with synthetic corks, and the Young Selected wines use screw caps.
As a consumer, I am not afraid of screw caps. I love the ease of opening a bottle at home with a turn of the wrist rather than having to find the wretched bottle opener. It is also amusing when the sommelier comes up to you in a posh restaurant, presents you with a bottle with all the pomp and ceremony, only to open it with a twist. However, I have at home a collection of corks of the finest wines I have drunk. Each cork has the wine or winery imprinted on it, and each cork is stained and shaped slightly differently. It would not be the same to collect screw caps, would it?
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.
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