Doing the Twist, Retroactively

May 6, 2008

While other wineries dither about whether to use twist-off caps instead of corks for their current wines, Leeuwin Estate has taken it a step further. Australia's greatest producer of Chardonnay went back and rebottled its entire library under spiral.

The Chardonnay collection dates back to 1980, the first vintage of the renowned Art Series bottling. There were four to 12 cases of each vintage in the cellar.

"It took five months and cost about $60,000 to do it," said owner Denis Horgan, "but it was worth it. What was happening, you would send some wine to an event and you had to send two bottles every time, in case one was bad. I figured, why not do it all and keep all the wines longer?"

Like most of his Australian colleagues, Horgan has had it with corks spoiling some percentage of his careful efforts. Leeuwin made the switch to screw caps for all its wines starting with the 2005 vintage. Since 1993, some portion of the production was bottled using Stelvin closures, at first for experimental purposes, later because some of his savvier export clients insisted on it.

"We would decant the wines and try them blind, Stelvin vs. cork," Horgan recalled. "The wines under (Stelvin) seal were always fresher, and we preferred them."

When Leeuwin first started using Stelvin closures commercially, U.S. importer Old Bridge Cellars was among those who feared that the market would resist. So they took only about 20 percent of their allotment under spiral. Now, everyone wants the cap.

I haven't heard of anyone else rebottling old stock, but it makes sense, especially the way Leeuwin did it. As Horgan described it (see my video, below), the wines were uncorked one by one, and tasted to make sure the contents were sound. Then they transferred the contents to a screw-top bottle, topped it up with some of the same vintage from another bottle, and placed it in a container under inert gas to keep it from oxidizing until it could be run through the capping machine.

"We didn't have to discard a whole heap of wine," Horgan said. "But it's a relief to know we don't have any time bombs in the cellar."

This is important, because Leeuwin's Chardonnays age beautifully. I tasted 12 vintages of Leeuwin Chardonnay Art Series with Horgan on Sunday, dating to 1985, all but the most recent vintages rebottled. The wines were stunning. My favorite, as usual, was the 1987, a wine of absolutely perfect balance, a gorgeous array of fruit, spice and those ineffable characteristics that come from bottle age. It's nice to know those flavors aren't going away soon.

"If we wanted the wines for the long term," Horgan concluded, "I figured we better do it now."


Closures White Wines Australia Chardonnay

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