When it comes to stopping up a bottle of wine, the choices go well beyond corks vs. screw caps. Get ready for glass on glass. Maybe.
Conventional wisdom, if there is such a thing with this debate, says that screw caps are fine on everyday wines and even white wines you might want to age. But it's hard to dislodge the idea, firmly rooted in the minds of most wine drinkers, that red wine needs a cork to age.
That's a crock. We have the evidence in hand with wines bottled in Australia and New Zealand five to 10 years ago under both seals. Simply put, the wines are aging as they would under a perfect cork. Time after time, in blind comparisons, the screw-capped wine is preferred.
But when I say this to American sommeliers or wine sellers, they look at me as if I were from Mars. I finally figured out why. For most Americans, the Southern Hemisphere doesn't count. Whatever happens in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile or Argentina can't have any application to what we do north of the equator. Or so it would seem.
If you think I'm kidding, poll your friends on what they think of Australian wine. See if anyone mentions the terrific dry Rieslings, complex Shiraz-Cabernet blends, or disarming Grenaches. Maybe they'll refer to a blockbuster Shiraz. But chances are they'll cite Yellow Tail or some other mass market wine.
Here in Australia, it looks as if most wines are sold under screw caps, even the really good ones, red and white. Over dinner in Sydney, I asked Tyson Stelzer, who has written extensively on the subject, how the breakthrough happened. He said it was when the best producers started using them for their best wines. That's happened in New Zealand, and it's happening in Australia.
"Watch consumers when they pull a medium-priced screw-capped wine off the shelf and look over the bottle," he says. "They look up to the top shelf. If the bottles are all under cork, they'll put their bottle back. But if there are at least a few wines under screw caps, they will take it."
He also believes that there's no substitute for the revelatory experience of drinking a really good wine that came out of a screw-capped bottle. "No argument is so eloquent as being confronted with the evidence of our own taste buds," he says.
"You can put all the pamphlets out there, and we can write all the columns we want, but unless we actually taste it ourselves, it doesn't matter."
Convinced that an inert seal was better than risking an indeterminate percentage of bottle to cork taint, but finding screw caps too déclassé for a $300-plus wine, Henschke recently switched to a glass stopper for its Hill of Grace. So the next vintage of one of Australia's icon wines will be sealed under the Vino-Lok stopper. (Henschke now uses screw caps for its less expensive wines.)
This T-shaped closure is made of clear glass but what actually makes the seal is a ring of plastic polymer. The makers of Australia's other icon Shiraz, Grange, considered Vino-Lok but are working on something else.
It's not that Peter Gago, chief winemaker for Penfolds, is against screw caps. He convinced the powers that be at Foster's, the brewing giant that owns the venerable wine label, that twist-offs belong on some of the company's best wines. Yattarna, the $100-plus Chardonnay, comes under spiral. And the ultra-collectible 2004 Block 42 and Bin 60A, which sold for $225, are sealed in screw caps.
But not Grange, the winery's flagship wine. Not yet.
"We don't know how long a great Grange can last," Gago says. It's true. Well-stored wines from the 1950s, sealed under cork, are still alive and delicious (unless they have been done in by a bad cork). "Both the screw cap and Vino-Lok seal the bottle with plastic, and I don't know if those will last 50 years or more. I want to be 100 percent convinced whatever we replace cork with will be best for the wine."
Gago has a secret project going with an automotive engineer to develop a glass-on-glass seal. It isn't even to the prototype stage yet, and it will require precise engineering to make the top of the bottle absolutely flat. But the idea is for a spring-loaded clamp to secure a glass disc to the top of the bottle.
I guess you can afford to put extra dollars into a bottle and closure for a wine that costs that much.
Christopher Hills — Seattle, WA — April 16, 2007 1:09pm ET
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — April 16, 2007 3:58pm ET
Jim Mcclure — DFW, Texas — April 16, 2007 4:02pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — April 16, 2007 5:14pm ET
Brandon Redman — Seattle, WA — April 16, 2007 7:42pm ET
Russell Quong — Sunnyvale, CA — April 16, 2007 10:27pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 17, 2007 3:43am ET
Sam Chanhao — calgary — April 17, 2007 4:28am ET
Joseph Byrne — Gardiner NY — April 17, 2007 7:10am ET
Dan Jaworek — Chicago — April 17, 2007 8:56am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 17, 2007 9:19am ET
Jim Mcclure — DFW, Texas — April 17, 2007 10:23am ET
Joshua Masur — Redwood City, CA — April 17, 2007 12:53pm ET
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — April 17, 2007 1:53pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 17, 2007 5:57pm ET
Sam Chanhao — calgary — April 18, 2007 4:45am ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — April 18, 2007 2:01pm ET
Jim Mcclure — DFW, Texas — April 18, 2007 4:10pm ET
Allen Clark — Arlington, VA — May 26, 2007 2:19pm ET
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