Tag Archives: cork

It’s Time for Wine: A Tasting of Cork and Screw Top Wines

Cork vs. Screw Top — An Actual Tasting (Finally)

By Monty and Sara Preiser

As we look back, it seems that it was about 1999 when the American wine industry began to discuss in earnest the question of whether screw top enclosures could match corks in terms of a wine’s desired aging. Perhaps the issue had gained credibility at that time because by the end of the century Australian and New Zealand producers were reporting some encouraging results in favor of the screw cap enclosures. Up to then, however, consumers had not warmed to the idea, but more and more such bottles on the shelves naturally led to more and more discussions and inquiries.

By good fortune we happened to make an unscheduled stop at PlumpJack during that pivotal summer. While this property and its then sole winemaker Nils Venge are both in the industry’s forefront today, the winery was only two years old in 1999. Though it boasted some famous owners, it was not yet a major player. What put PlumpJack on the radar was its brilliant idea to bottle half its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon under screw top, and half under cork (150 cases total). For some reason the cost was a bit more for the latter if purchased separately, but the price was $260 for both wines – in those days a pretty costly pair. Nevertheless, we readily ponied up the money for a duo signed by Nils, and decided to let them age until a special moment occurred that was ripe for an evaluation and comparison of the two.

Fast forwarding to 2012, a couple of weeks ago the perfect opportunity indeed presented itself. Visiting Florida for a wine event were three of our favorite Napa couples – all skilled in most aspects surrounding wine. They were Clark and Elizabeth Swanson, owners of the famed Swanson Vineyards in the Oakville Appellation of Napa; Anthony and Suzanne Truchard, owners of the equally notable Truchard Vineyards in the Napa Carneros Appellation; and Chef Ken and Sheryelle Frank, owners of the oft awarded Michelin starred La Toque restaurant in downtown Napa. What a group.

We dined at one of Boca Raton’s best restaurants, Arturo’s, and owner Vincent Gismondi arranged to have both bottles at the correct temperature, properly decanted, and served blindly to us after an appropriate time for opening. Sara and I were anxious that the wines be without flaws after 13 years of storage and a change in residence, and it was immediately obvious (thank goodness) that the wines were in excellent shape. All of us then spent some time tasting both of these gems on their own, and then with the entrée of our individual choice.

If you have watched the movie Bottle Shock, a semi-historical picture about the 1976 Paris wine tasting where American wines made their international mark, you may recall a marvelously moving scene that takes place after the panel of solely French judges begins to blindly taste the American Chardonnays and French Burgundies. Beautifully depicted is the increasing confusion among the judges – confusion about which wines came from which nation. In effect, that alone was really a victory for the fledgling American wine industry no matter which wine was ultimately selected as the best that day.

At our own Boca tasting, while “perhaps” not as historically significant as the Paris event, there was, however, a similar initial response. The wines were excellent — that no one denied. But they were also so close in flavors that at first blush no one was willing to venture a definitive statement as to which glass came from which bottle. And truth be told, wasn’t that, in and of itself, a victory for the wine under screw cap? Further, if these were ever proved to be the usual results, would that not be a victory for an entire industry that loses incalculable dollars to tainted corks every year? No, at least not yet. The wines still had some time to spend in glass before any conclusions could be drawn with certainty.

It is interesting to note that since 2004 PlumpJack has been producing Cabs under both enclosures. It is also interesting to revisit the reality that even though screw tops have been out there for a while, there are still no properly controlled studies by wineries, writers, or institutions of repute finding that screw tops allow the same great aging characteristics of corks. Once our wines were allowed to open up even more, would our little experiment find any differently?

As we sat and sipped, it was not surprising that we all perceived a constant changing of characteristics in both glasses. This happens with fine wines as they become more oxygenated. For a while most of us preferred one glass, and then the other. However, and most importantly for this exercise, everyone liked both wines very much for the entire time we were there, and few were certain which was which. Ultimately, much like the upset in 1976, the majority of the table felt that the glass of wine that came from the screw top bottle was, on balance, better. Those who felt the opposite all conceded that the call was close.

As we sat down to write this article we could not help but wonder what happened to those other 149 sets of 1997 wine that were sold by PlumpJack in 1999. Well, courtesy of Ken Frank we did discover the destiny of one pair. Ken and Sheryelle, themselves, along with famed vintners and philanthropists Garen and Shari Staglin, did in fact enjoy a side by side of the subject wines about five years ago. Their conclusion? Interestingly, the same as ours, though they somewhat discounted their results because, they felt, it was too close to bottling to make any valid pronouncement, and certainly not one prognosticating anything long term.

That is not the case any longer. Plenty of time has passed and in all these years we can find no evidence that any independent wine writers or qualified panel of tasters have taken the time and effort to make a comparison of these two bottles, or any other similarly situated wines. It is true that PlumpJack itself ran a test about five years ago and announced there was little difference, but the bias here (or clear potential thereof) is too obvious to even require comment.

It is hard to accept that we are the only writers to have taken the issue seriously enough to do something about it (the specter of Paris is again raised in our minds as we think of George Taber, the only journalist who felt it worthwhile to cover that august European event). However, as far as we can discover, what we and our Napa friends did in Florida has not been undertaken, or at least covered in some broad manner, by any other independent writer.

We feel lucky that we had such unassailable palates tasting with us, as that certainly adds great credibility to what we report today. Lest one think, by the way, that our panel’s judgment as to the quality of the wine under screw top was based only on some simplistic reason like retaining fruit flavors comparable to a five year old wine, that is far from accurate. Both wines had aged beautifully, and both probably will easily live another 5 to 8 years. But on this day, to these particular tasters, and with these particular wines, the screw cap enclosure made a significant name for itself and, at least for these two writers, opened another chapter for research.

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

Keep Your Wine Chilled with the Corkcicle

There’s a new way to keep your white or rosé wine chilled between pouring glasses. Introducing the Corkcicle, a reusable icicle that you stick inside the wine bottle.

Visually appealing and much smaller than an ice bucket (and less hassle than sticking the bottle back in the refrigerator between pours), the Corkcicle maintains the wine’s temperature without diluting its flavors.

The Corkcicle is filled with a reusable frozen gel and is BPA-free. Just freeze the Corkcicle for at least two hours, then stick it in the wine bottle after you’ve poured the first glass.

Handwash the clear plastic icicle once you are finished and put it back in the freezer so it’s ready for the next time you want to keep a wine cool.

Ideal for white and rosé wines, the Corkcicle may also be used with red wines to bring them down to a more suitable temperature for drinking.

The Corkcicle costs $22.95 and may be purchased online at Uncommon Goods.

image from UncommonGoods.com

It’s Time for Wine: Corks vs. Screw Tops

Does the Debate Still Have Legs?

By Monty and Sara Preiser

As wine writers and educators, as well as publishers and vintners, we are constantly asked questions about varying aspects of the wine industry. Probably the most often asked question has to do with what we think about screw top closures on bottles of wine.

Like with so many other inquiries, a simple “yes” or “no” answer would be misleading. No matter which one word answer we would give, an explanation would have to follow in order to be accurate. Obviously, then, there are pros and cons to both positions, and these are affected by a myriad of factors, desires, and situations. We will try to cover the most important information and beliefs below, and finish with our own conclusions drawn on experience, study, and common sense.

It has always struck us as odd that in discussions about this subject we have never heard anyone question whether or not a finished wine is SUPPOSED to age. The only reason corks were used as a bottle closure in the first place was that there were no other substances available that could do the job and be opened in a reasonably simple manner. And does one suppose that the first people to employ corks thought about the slow aging process that would ultimately change the wine’s characteristics? Quite doubtful. Therefore, one might credibly argue that the changes caused by aging are NOT the natural or desired results of a finished bottle of wine. It could well be that a screw top, which inhibits aging for some indefinite, but longish, period, is the way things ought to be and would have been used long ago if available.

So at this point before any debate over screw caps vs. cork closures goes too far afoot, it would seem that the answer as to which is desired depends in great part on the individual and how s/he prefers his or her wine. If s/he desires higher fruit and youth, the screw top would be the way to go on wines of all types. If s/he prefers the emergence and ultimate flavors of secondary characteristics, then slow oxygenation permitted through the living and always somewhat porous cork is the answer.

For those who are certain they prefer the fruit forward, young taste of a wine, regardless of the varietal, the debate over which is better – cork or screw top – is moot. It should make no difference to them, except perhaps for some academic purpose. The pragmatic argument continues, however, for those who are interested in consuming wines affected by the traditional aging process.

As we know, natural cork is (or was) a living substance. As such, many factors can play on its makeup. The one that is most devastating to the wine industry is tricholroanisole (TCA), which transfers unpleasant musty smells and taste from the cork to the wine, which is then itself highly affected by losing fruit and structure. When this happens, a wine is referred to as being “corked.” Depending on one’s susceptibility to, and experience with, this smell, as many as 1 out of every 12-15 wines can be ruined to one degree or another. Obviously, the economic effect on the wine industry, which must replace these bottles and obviously lose its product, is serious. Consumers also suffer if they cannot get a refund, something that is sometimes impossible for many reasons.

Should you be thinking about synthetic corks (usually made of plastic so there will be no TCA), the problem with them seems to be that they have not shown much, if any, ability to stop oxidization, and so their use needs to be limited to wines that will be enjoyed relatively quickly. If chosen, then, one should realize the shelf life of a wine will become diminished, and there will be little chance for beneficial aging. All in all there is considerable doubt as to the efficient use of synthetic corks as a viable closure (not to mention that they are extremely hard on good wine openers).

To the screw top, or, if you like, screw cap. There is no doubt that, as a pure seal, these are better than anything else. They also, for all intents and purposes, eliminate the problem of a corked bottle and early oxygenation. What they do not allow is the romance of opening the cork, something not to be underestimated. Screw caps are also associated with cheaper wines – conversely, expensive and high end wines are associated with a cork. What is not yet conclusively established is whether screw cap closures allow for long term (perhaps decades or even generations) of aging.

The best known brand of wine screw cap is Stelvin, now owned by Amcor. Like people referring to all tissues as Kleenex, this closure is so common that many refer to all screw tops as Stelvins or Stelvin closures, regardless of brand. What sets the Stelvin apart from its competitors (not many left) is an aesthetically pleasing long outside skirt that resembles the traditional foil capsule on a wine bottle. Also, Stelvin uses polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) as a neutral liner on the inside wadding of the cap, which creates a better seal than other substances.

While boxed wines using bladders and other closures such as glass are now on the marketplace and showing promise, their evaluations are ripe for another story at another time. The discussion here is limited to the two most common closures that spark the greatest numbers of questions and debates.

So here is our conclusion, which we think is quite credible under all the circumstances:

Most white wines in the U.S. will be consumed within a couple of years and so screw caps are they way to go. It just makes sense not to worry about TCA. For big Chardonnays designed to age, however, we think a cork is better and that the wines actually do improve if they age under proper conditions. As for red wines, once again we think screw caps would be fine for any of them designed to be consumed within a couple of years. But for most Bordeaux varietals and Pinot Noirs of quality, again we prefer a cork so that these wines can age and gain in sophistication. We are among those who love the wondrous secondary characteristics such as forest floor, leather, and dirt that are exhibited by an older red.

And here is the real bottom line. The question of cork enclosures has been around for a long time now – easily 20 years or so. Tests performed by screw top manufacturers or wineries with inexpensive portfolios are suspect for obvious reasons. Only high end wineries that lose a great deal of money from corked wines have the impetus to actually find a reason to use the screw top. So one can expect they have tried to discover some proof that screw tops are at least as good for all wines.

In all these years, however, there is no persuasive study (that means zero) that concludes screw tops allow a wine to age well and obtain those luscious flavors and nuances preferred by so many of us. If such a finding existed, you can bet the house that you would have heard it trumpeted to the mountaintops by now. We predict, then, that corks will be around for a long time to not only add aging ability, but to help maintain that special feeling that naturally comes with the opening of that anticipated bottle.

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November.  Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.