In a tasting last weekend, Plumpjack Winery poured pairs of samples from its grand experiment in screw caps. Starting in 1997, the winery bottled half of its reserve Cabernet Sauvignon under the best corks they could buy, and the other half under Stelvin screw caps, in a joint study with the University of California at Davis.
We tasted the 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005 vintages at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. In each case, a show of hands among the 40 or so wine drinkers in attendance divided pretty evenly among those who liked the wine from the screw-capped bottle best, those who preferred the bottle under cork, and those who had no preference.
On my scorecard, I liked the freshness and brightness of the 2000 screw-capped wine better, although the cork-finished wine got richer as it sat in the glass. I called the 2003 even, with the cork showing a more complete nose, the twist-off tighter structure and more vibrancy. The '04 went to the cork, although the twisty showed more lifted flavors. The capped '05, not yet released, was slightly more appealing to me.
It wasn't blind, which would have been better, but basically what we had was a statistical tie.
At first blush, this might seem a defeat for the screw cap. If the screw-capped wines aren't better than those under cork, why switch? But that ignores the twin elephants in the living room: cork taint, and bottle variation.
In this tasting, none of the wines showed cork taint, that moldy, mouth-drying sensation that comes from 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA for short), formed when organisms in the cork come into contact with the wine. The wine industry is moving to alternative closures because TCA ruins a significant percentage of bottles sealed with cork.
We can argue over the percentage. The cork industry says it has the number down to about 1 to 2 percent these days. In my blind tastings, I still find one or two blatantly corky wines in a tasting of 25, and that doesn't count the wines that don't taste quite right with the second bottle being just fine. Including those, we're looking at upwards of 15 percent of young wines adversely affected by the closure.
Number of bottles in my blind tastings adversely affected by screw caps? Virtually zero.
Which brings us back to the Plumpjack tasting results. For this tasting, master sommeliers Larry Stone and Rajat Parr checked all the bottles before pouring. "We were ready to put a corked bottle into the tasting anyway," Stone noted, "and let the chips fall where they may, but they were all good."
So what we have is this. A group that included two master sommeliers, the winemaker and a bunch of avid wine drinkers divided pretty much equally on which closure fared better in terms of taste. If some percentage of cork-finished wines are ticking time bombs ready to disappoint you when you open them, I'd say the advantage goes to the screw cap, big time.
In this tasting, as in virtually all of the many chances I've had in recent years to compare wines that have been in bottle for several years, the screw-capped wines tended to taste fruitier but less developed. But over time, they do develop, and after about 10 years or so, there's no discernible difference between a screw-capped wine and a cork-finished wine, as long as it's a perfect cork.
How do we know? Because they've been running comparisons in Australia for years now. We can sample screw-capped wines that are 30 or 40 years old, and they still taste fresh and complete. We can compare high-end red wines bottled in the mid 1990s side by side with cork-finished bottles of the same wines. If anyone tells you there's no data, they're ignoring a growing mountain of evidence from Australia. What? If it happens south of the equator, it doesn't count?
Some pundits have raised the specter of reduction in screw-capped wines, their theory being that the virtually oxygen-free environment in the bottle promotes the development of sulfides, which are stinky. You would expect a lot of stinky screw-capped bottles, but that's simply not the case. Screw-capped wines taste fresh, almost always. Besides, that's a winemaking issue. If the winemaker controls sulfur and aerates the wine enough before bottling, it's not a problem.
What's the bottom line for red wines? Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Foster's, and a screw-cap believer, sums it up this way: For the first five years, the cork-finished wine develops more rapidly while the screw-capped wine shows more fruit. At five to 10 years, the cork's maturation plateaus while the screw-cap continues to mature. After 10 years, the maturation characteristics are similar.
But in my experience, cork-finished wines are all over the map in terms of soundness after 10 years. Some will be corky. Some will be oxidized by corks that didn't quite do their job. Any wine collector knows that drill. But if virtually every screw-capped wine is equally good, doesn't that make the decision a no-brainer? I think we're past the tipping point.