Although producers in many New World regions -- including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa -- have embraced the screw cap as a wine closure, French winemakers have been more reluctant to make the turn. But in Bordeaux and Burgundy, where whispers of secret screw-cap testing have echoed through the countryside for years, some producers and négociants are finally going public with the Stelvin closure.
Earlier this month, André Lurton became the first Bordeaux producer to release a cru classé under screw cap when he announced that he is bottling three white wines with Stelvin closures. About 1,000 cases of the 2003 bottling of Château Couhins-Lurton white, a Graves cru classé, have been topped with screw caps, as well as 1,000 cases of Château La Louvière Pessac-Léognan 2003 and about 18,000 cases of the less-expensive Château Bonnet Entre-Deux-Mers 2003. Château Bonnet, which sells for around $10, is already available in markets around the world; the other two wines, which have been priced at $40 or more in previous vintages, should hit U.S. stores by September.
James Ryland, Lurton's sales and marketing director, said it was easier to make the first leap to screw caps with white wines. "Whites are more susceptible to oxidation -- they're technical wines that need technical closures," he said.
Lurton has been experimenting with screw caps since 1992, Ryland said, and is testing some red wines under the Stelvin closure. "There's the conception that reds can't age as well under a screw cap, which we don't believe is true, but we need to conduct years of trials first," Ryland said.
First-growth Château Margaux also announced that it has bottled a small amount of its second wine, Pavillon Rouge, under Stelvin to study how the wine will age. "We'll conduct blind tastings over time and compare them with cork-sealed bottles," Margaux director Paul Pontallier said. "We can't decide on such an important issue unless we are totally sure it will work in the long term."
Pontallier says France's top winemakers, who in the past have held onto the traditional cork with a firm grip, are becoming more open-minded about alternative closures. "I'm quite sure that most producers just want something that works. I think most of them are ready to at least experiment with the screw cap."
Ironically, screw caps are especially easy for Bordeaux winemakers to obtain. Pechiney, the French manufacturer of the Stelvin closure and one of the world's leading screw-cap producers, has a major factory near St.-Emilion. (In nearby Switzerland, according to Pechiney, Stelvin is used to top 70 percent of the country's wines, though most are consumed domestically.)
In Burgundy, where winemakers have also been resistant to new technologies, two producers have recently announced that their wines will soon proudly bear Stelvin caps.
Burgundy négociant Alex Gambal bottled his first wines with screw caps a couple of weeks ago. Half of Gambal's 2003 bottling of Bourgogne Chardonnay -- about 175 cases -- and 75 cases of his 2003 Cuvée les Deux Papis will be available in the U.K. market. Gambal, an American, said the British market has been more receptive to alternative closures than his native country. "The American market is still very skittish about the Stelvin," he said. "But I think in time it will change. It's an infuriating and very frustrating problem: This is the only industry where both the consumer and the manufacturers are willing to buy into a product that is flawed."
Gambal plans on experimenting with the Stelvin on his best wines, including premiers and grands crus. But there isn't a race yet to release entire productions of top Burgundy under screw cap, Gambal said. For that, Burgundy winemakers are still waiting to see who will draw first. "The Burgundians are very conservative and the slowest to change, but I'm convinced that when one of the large, well-known domaines does it, other people will feel comfortable following suit."
Burgundy négociant Jean-Claude Boisset is releasing small amounts of several bottles from the 2003 vintage topped with screw caps, including premier cru Santenay Grand Clos Rousseau, Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin Villages. The wines will begin appearing in the United States and the United Kingdom in October. "We feel fairly confident after the research we've done that the Stelvin will work nicely," said Jean-Charles Boisset, the founder's son. Boisset said the decision to test the Stelvin was sparked by a tasting of a 1966 Mercurey that was closed by screw cap, a decades-old experiment that indicates those whispers have been bouncing around the French countryside for some time.
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