When Florent Baumard, the mild-mannered owner of Domaine des Baumard in France's Loire Valley, announced he was switching to bottling his entire production under screw cap, more than a few people noticed. It was a bold move, not only because of the domaine's high profile as one of the wine world's flagship estates for Chenin Blanc, but because it was still relatively early in the cork versus screw cap closure debate. But while it started as an experiment in the 2003 and 2004 vintages, it didn't take long for Baumard to commit.
"To me, it's obvious that Stelvin [the leading brand of aluminum screw caps] is a better way to protect wine, for consistency from bottle to bottle, versus cork," he said while visiting Wine Spectator's New York office this week, with nine vintages of his Savennières and Quarts de Chaume in tow to demonstrate. "The evolution under Stelvin is very slow, but the wines keep the character of the vintage and there isn't the variation from bottle to bottle that I saw under cork."
Baumard's frustration with cork grew quickly as he assumed control of his family domaine, following in his father's footsteps in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. He would be pouring samples at a tasting, for example, pulling bottles of the same wine from a single case, and he would see differences among them, sometimes small, sometimes larger.
"And I didn't like explaining away those differences as just 'terroir,'" said Baumard. "It wasn't fair and it wasn't right. Plus, I saw I was losing customers. Frankly, if I had known then what I know now, I would've made the change 30 years ago, not just 10."
Not that Baumard didn't have his chance. His first vintage, 1987, exposed his youthful naïveté at running a domaine when he budgeted badly and wound up short of bottles and corks to bottle part of his production.
"My father saved me, again," said Baumard with a slight smile. "He had some sparkling bottles which were not being used, and so I bottled a dry white wine in them, using a crown cap closure. Then, several years later, a customer came in who had bought some of that wine and he told me when drinking it recently, how fresh it still was. That opened my eyes. But I kept struggling with corks for a few more years before I finally made the switch."
Today, Domaine des Baumard totals 124 acres, 74 to 86 of which are in production as Baumard rotates his new plantings in slowly. There is a small amount of red wine produced here, but 80 percent of the average 10,000-case production is Chenin Blanc, covering sparkling, dry and sweet wines. But while Baumard has always been among the Loire's quality leaders, the switch to Stelvin has cost him customers over the years. Even now, he's still fighting against the perception of screw caps.
"In France, it's more difficult than in the U.S.. But even here in the U.S. there are some restaurants that won't take the wines," he said with an air of frustration. "I find it odd that all of my private clients have always been happy with the switch, but among the so-called 'professionals' in the wine trade, there remains some resistance."
To show how the wines were progressing under Stelvin, Baumard poured eight vintages of his Savennières Clos du Papillon—2012, 2011, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 2003. The 2012, '11 and '10 were very youthful and unformed, typical of young Savennières, which needs time in bottle to knit, stretch out and display its inherent minerality. With the 2007, 2006 and 2005 trio, the wine started to show the breed of the site, of which Baumard and Domaine du Closel are the only producers. The vineyard features schist topped with sand and lined with veins of quartz and soft granite, and with the middle trio of vintages the wine shifts from a rather balled-up jumble of quince, apple and pear notes into a longer, more filigreed wine showing salted butter, green almond, verbena and more. It gets longer in feel while retaining freshness—the "slower aging" that Baumard seems to prefer in bottle. Finishing with the '03, from a notoriously hot year that on paper was less than ideal for dry white wine production, is the most dramatic example of terroir, skillful winemaking and pristine storage coming together, as the wine shows taut yellow apple, quince and fennel notes with a very long, zippy finish.
While the Savennières Clos du Papillon vintages showed how slowly but steadily the wine stretches out in bottle under screw cap, the most dramatic moments of the tasting were when Baumard poured his Savennières Trie Spéciale 2003 and Quarts de Chaume 2004 from both cork and screw cap, the vintage when Baumard was transitioning closures. The aromas alone were a dramatic tell, with the cork closure bottles showing more flamboyant fruit and opulent honeyed notes, while on the palate they were lusher, rounded and softer in feel. Under screw cap closure though, the wines still showed their fruit character, particularly the intensely ripe yellow apple and heather notes of the '03 Trie Spéciale, yet they showed much tighter focus as well as fresher, racier textures and longer, more precise finishes. As they sat in the glass, the wines from the cork closure bottles also seemed to lose just a half-step, while those from the Stelvin closures gained steadily, letting the minerality of the wines blossom with air.
With the proof now before him, the quest to put his wines under screw cap has pushed Baumard to look backward as well as forward—he's now reconditioning the stocks of older vintages in his cellars from cork to screw cap.
"It takes a lot of time and expense, because as I open each bottle and taste, I wind up tossing away maybe one-third of them from failed corks. They either have outright cork taint, or just those variations in how they've aged that aren't the true expression of the wine for me," he said.
"But we believe our wines age well. And oxidation is not aging. That's why for me, it's important to do this," said Baumard.