The debate about corks versus screwcaps is hardly a new one, so why now?
Today, we’re emailing our customers with a 30-Second Survey to see whether they prefer corks or screwcaps on our whites, reds and rosé. We’re bottling next month, so we’d like to know what our customers prefer.
What closures do Château Bauduc use?
All our wines in our current line-up (pre-2010 vintage) are bottled with natural cork from Portugal. After some poor experiences with corks ten years ago, we did a trial using Stelvin – the leading brand of screwcaps – for our 2002 vintage Bordeaux Blanc. The 2002 bottles sealed with Stelvin are still drinking well today.
Why not carry on with Stelvin screwcaps back then?
Consumer reaction in 2003 was mixed and some restaurateurs were not in favour. The acceptance of screwcaps since has obviously changed in most countries, especially the UK, but not in France. More importantly, we changed cork suppliers – we now use two or three – and the quality of corks has improved dramatically. It’s a small point but we were also quite attached to the uncommon ‘antique’ green colour of our bottles, which until now have not been available here for screwcaps.
Why use corks?
We love corks, even if we don’t like with the way the cork industry promotes the stuff, above. Cork is an amazing natural product – the bark of a special type of oak tree that flourishes in Portugal, and also in Spain, and harvested once every nine years. We spend more than we probably should at our price point to have good quality corks – about 15p each or more (remember that on a £7 bottle, over 40% goes in UK tax). During bottling the corks are forced into the bottle and are left upright for several minutes to give the cork time to reflate properly. After which, a red wine can live for decades when properly stored on its side. Also, millions of people love the satisfaction and ritual of uncorking a bottle.
So what’s wrong with corks?
Roughly 2-3% of our bottles are ‘corked’, I reckon. The tell-tale signs are that the wine smells of damp, musty cardboard and tastes bitter and mouldy. This is caused by the aptly named 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short, which is present in a few random corks which then spoil the wine after bottling. (It’s amazing how quickly a TCA-affected cork can taint the wine.) As TCA is measured in parts per trillion, it’s powerful stuff and hard to spot before it’s too late. Cork can also dumb down the aromas, which is almost worse for a winemaker, as customers put the flat, dull wine down to the brand. In cork’s defense, it does get blamed for a number of faults which can stem from the winery.
The trouble is, you don’t know which bottle is corked or musty until you smell it. Every bottle should be checked before pouring into glasses at home, in a restaurant, at a wedding or at a party. When I tasted 350 bottles of Bordeaux, including Château Bauduc, before the Prince’s Trust Gala Ball in 2009 (right), 10 were corked and I rejected another 13 as being below par – and not fit for a Prince.
Do customers complain about corked wine?
We offer a full money-back guarantee but even so, we get very few complaints about corked or ‘off’ wine. We’d like to think that everything’s fine but it’s probably because our customers are very decent people who don’t want to put up a fuss over a relatively inexpensive bottle. On the trade side, Rick Stein hasn’t asked for a credit or complained about the quality of a single bottle in ten years.
Incidentally, when customers are asked to taste a wine in a restaurant, how many know they are really being asked just to check that the wine is not corked? Wrong temperature maybe, or possibly oxidation, but 9 times out of 10, it’s only about cork.
Are Reds, Whites and Rosés affected differently?
I have a long nose which picks up cork taint in a glass from twenty paces, but a slightly corked bottle of dry, crisp, aromatic white or soft, fruity rosé is far more obvious to most wine drinkers than a slightly corked bottle of red. Also, there’s the issue of bottle age for reds – our reds are better after a few years in bottle, whereas the whites and rosé should be consumed quite young. The jury is still out on the long-term aging potential of oak-aged reds bottled under Stelvin. In Bordeaux, the top Châteaux are extremely unlikely to change from corks, in part because they sell through a network of merchants who rarely accept liability for faulty wine.
I also have this bizarre, unfounded notion that a dry white or rosé, made in a way that avoids any contact with oxygen in a stainless-steel tank, would be better bottled with a completely air-tight metal screwcap, whereas a red wine that’s been aged in oak, with regular contact with oxygen, might co-exist well with it’s Quercus oak cousin, the cork.
What about plastic or synthetic corks?
Synthetic corks have their place but there can, allegedly, be problems with premature oxidation after about 18 months in bottle. More importantly, we’ve found that they are a bugger to pull out of a bottle and even more of a bugger to put back in.
Which closures are more practical?
The elimination of cork taint is the main thing, but a great advantage of Stelvin is the instinctive reaction to replace the screwcap on the bottle, thereby preserving the freshness. You can keep an opened bottle of white for far longer in the fridge, and it won’t leak if left lying down. Even with Vacuvin stoppers for bottles that had corks in, we routinely pour white and rosé down the sink because we left the bottle open for too long.
So is Stelvin the answer?
More than likely. If I buy a bottle in a wine shop or supermarket in the UK, I tend to go for Stelvin for reliability (a Kiwi Pinot Noir, a German Riesling…). Screwcaps have their faults, usually to do with reductive problems when the wine has been starved of oxygen. Many experts are not totally sold on the idea of screwcaps. I suspect that Stelvin is fairly unforgiving when it comes to the preparation of the wine before bottling. What goes in is what comes out.
Finally, I commented on an Irish wine blog called Sour Grapes about Corks v Screwcaps, after a watching a video of respected Australian winemaker Tim Adams, and in the comments, Gerry Gunnigan posted a useful link to this interview with another respected winemaker, Vanya Cullen. Our Irish importer, Mike from Curious Wines, is evidently fairly keen on screwcaps.
Please take 30 Seconds to vote in our poll, and feel free to comment below.
If you’ve read this far, you may want some light relief by perusing the completely unconnected ‘5 stories from around the world – not for the easily offended.’