Nick Adams, MW
For centuries the only method for stoppering a wine bottle was with a cork. So much so that it became the very symbol of wine itself and with it the often prolonged ceremony and theatre of opening the bottle with a cork screw and sniffing the cork to see if it was clean.
But then along came the villain in the piece that changed both the practicality and cost of this most traditional of closures. That “crook” was a little mould, which if left in the finished cork, made the wine smell and taste unpleasant – a sort of dank and musty smell and taste with all the fruit flavour stripped out.
Trichloroanisole – or TCA as it is often referred to – is a bi-product from a naturally occurring airborne mould which is sometimes found in the pores of the cork bark. This tree is the natural source for traditional cork and during its processing this mould should be eradicated. However, it can sometimes be very stubborn and very quickly taints any wine it comes into contact with. But I must stress that it is in no way harmful, just unpleasant – and also has the capacity to spoil that prized bottle you have been keeping for a special occasion.
I am afraid to report that cheaper bottles of wine with poorer quality corks are more prone to this issue. To put this into context, a top quality, well processed, cork will cost the producer the best part of £1 for just one cork!
Over time the industry has looked at many options to counter this problem. Successful cork substitutes have been developed such as plastic corks. Some of these look very realistic, but can be a pain to open with a cork screw and then restopper. In recent years the Diam® stopper has become increasingly used – especially for more everyday wines. These are made from a ground cork amalgam, which is treated so that there cannot be any cork taint.
And a few producers are using the elegant glass stoppers, which I feel look really good, but unfortunately – for now – are rather expensive.
But undoubtedly the greatest revolution has been in the development of screw cap closures. These metal capsules are completely air tight and have the added advantage of being easy to open – not least in the middle of a field on a picnic when don’t have your cork screw! Also you can fill the bottle right up to the top with wine as you do not need to leave a “pressure gap” space in the neck of the bottle which you do when you push in a cork.
However, for some traditional wine drinkers the imagery of the screw cap has been a problem for them, which I can appreciate to a degree. The very ceremony of opening and sniffing the cork; approving the wine, is part of the overall pleasure for some. And for the fine wine collector, who cellars their wine and wants to enjoy the pleasures of mature wine, there is still a question mark over the ability of screw cap to support this extended maturation process.
To this end, it is interesting that the renowned producer Henschke (in South Australia) are trialing their iconic red wine Hill of Grace (generally regarded as Australia’s greatest single vineyard Shriaz) under both cork and screw cap in the same vintage – and plan to monitor the wines’ progress to see if there is any detectable difference between the closures over time.
And if you have any further imagery concerns maybe I could leave you with this thought – some of the most valuable and collectable beverages in the world are rare old bottles of (malt) Scotch whisky – and virtually all of these are sealed with a screw cap.
But let’s finish by sparing a thought for the poor old Sommelier – is his/her role and future diminished, maybe even threatened, by the swing towards screw cap closures? What about the service and theatre they provide?
Somehow I doubt it – not least because part of a good sommelier’s role is to help diners with wine and food pairings, not just opening bottles. And if all the world did move over to screw cap they would still make a ceremony out of the process – as you can see from the trade illustration below!
From a purely personal perspective over the years I have been on the receiving end of too many corked bottles for my liking and don’t see why any of us should have to have an occasion spoiled and pocket dented by a problem which does have a solution.
Nick Adams, MW