Screw caps may no longer be identified solely with wines from the New World. The New Zealand Screwcap Initiative, which helped popularize the alternative wine closure among winemakers and consumers in its home country, is expanding its efforts to Europe in the form of the International Screwcap Initiative.
The worldwide effort will be headed by Michael Brajkovich, winemaker at Kumeu River in New Zealand, while Chablis producer Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche will lead the charge in Europe. He will be encouraging other European wineries to follow his lead and switch from cork to screw cap.
Laroche began bottling some of his wines with screw caps in 2002. "We experimented with 11 different types of closures for three or four years on our Chablis St. Martin and a Merlot from the south of France in order to gauge the impact of the closures on two very different types of wines," said Laroche. "We were registering 5 to 6 percent cork taint in our tasting room, and I estimate that a further 10 percent suffered premature oxidation."
"The key point here is that we are uniting a group of like-minded producers who all believe that screw caps best preserve their wines, in the state the winemaker intended them to do so," added Laroche. "As Michael Brajkovich said, 'We're not selling screw caps, we're defending our decision to use a closure type that guarantees the quality of our top wines.' That's the message that we have to get across to the consumers. We're doing this for their pleasure."
The New Zealand Screwcap Initiative was successful at this very quickly on its home soil. The organization began in New Zealand in 2001, when a group of Marlborough winemakers came together to discuss alternative closures after years of frustration with oxidation and TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that creates the wine flaw known as "cork taint." The organization aimed to share technical information with member wineries and to educate the wine trade and consumers about the benefits of screw caps. Today, the NZSI estimates, 90 percent of wines produced in New Zealand are sealed with screw caps.
While acceptance came quickly in New Zealand, Foxes Island winemaker John Belsham, current NZSI chairman, predicts a much tougher task in Europe. "In Europe, a lot of premium producers are selling their new releases on the reputation of their older vintages," he explained. "Consequently, many feel that a change in closure may indicate to some consumers that the wines that they are holding in their cellars under a previous closure may be deemed to be inferior, and render the wine less valuable. It will change, but obviously slower than in an environment like New Zealand, where the prevalence of cellared older wines is significantly lower."
Belsham and Laroche believe that the biggest challenge will be convincing the wine trade and wine drinkers that screw caps do not inhibit a wine's bottle development, in part by combating the misconception that wine needs oxygen to age properly. "This is simply not true, and there has been much technical information and debate presented on this subject," said Belsham. "Of course, wines will mature in a bottle both with and without oxygen. They will, however, do so differently. The maturation under a screw cap is essentially anaerobic, and there is virtually no variability in the integrity of the seal. If the wine is correctly vinified and prepared for bottling, it will mature regularly under a correctly applied screw cap. The screw cap does not dictate the quality of the wine any more than the bottle itself does. The fruit, terroir and winemaking input determine that."
There's a second misconception to overcome, according to Laroche. "That screw caps are for cheap wines," he said. "I didn't invest 100,000 euros to adapt my bottling line if this was a cheap option. Nor would I have decided to bottle my top-of-the-range Chablis, Réserve de l'Obédience [priced at $99] exclusively under screw caps from the 2004 vintage onwards, if that was the case!"
Overall, Laroche is optimistic that European wineries and wine drinkers will embrace screw caps as he has. "Certain markets such as Scandinavia, the U.K., Holland and Ireland have been very quick to adapt," he said. "France has also reacted well, and many of the prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants now prefer to order our wines with screw caps. It's easier for them and there is less loss. Although I don't think that we can make a generalization about Europe as a whole—as we've seen, each market has its own speed, and the battle isn't won yet."
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