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2015 Closure Trends from California

Twist-offs gain while cork taint subsides
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 3, 2016 11:00am ET

Cork manufacturers say the quality of corks is improving, and they may be right. But more vintners are choosing to bottle their wines under twist-offs than ever before.

Last year in our Napa office we encountered fewer bottles suspected of cork taint than in any year since we started keeping track in 2005.

Tasters flagged 3.5 percent of all cork-finished wines for being suspected of some kind of flaw, most often TCA, and marked them for retaste. (In fairness, "suspected" is the key word, since we don't send the questionable corks or wines to be tested by a lab.)

Of the 6,820 wines reviewed in Napa last year, 4,918 were bottled with corks and 170 were marked for retaste, giving us the 3.5 percent tainted figure. Our tastings include wines from California (3,695), Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Washington. Of all those, 1,633, or 23.9 percent, were bottled under twist-offs—that's the highest percentage we've encountered yet, up from 23.1 percent in 2014 and 22.4 percent in 2013. Australia and New Zealand are ahead of the curve when it comes to twist-offs, with New Zealand's percentage around 90 percent.

Cork-finished wines from California showed the biggest drop in TCA taint, down to just 2.6 percent. The other aforementioned countries and regions had a combined 5.2 percent of their wines marked for retaste.

TCA-related cork taint is often obvious: Wines heavily tainted by TCA display pungent mold and chlorine odors and/or flavors. Low-level TCA is harder to detect, yet it affects a wine's flavor or body. Retasting a wine can often reveal these lower levels of taint: If it later shows better, an inferior seal or substandard storage conditions are presumed to have been the culprit(s) of the wine's earlier poor showing.

We count wines suspected of taint among those bottled under both natural cork, composite cork and cork alternatives, which we've been following for years. We don't track instances of suspected TCA taint for wines bottled under twist-offs, which occasionally show minor flaws such as oxidation, but in minuscule numbers.

Ever since the spotlight hit TCA taint in the 1980s, many closures have been tried, including synthetics, with twist-offs gaining the largest share among alternatives, particularly among early-drinking whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and rosés and, to a much less extent, reds like Pinot Noirs. This reflects vintners' and consumers' approval.

No matter where you stand on the issue of closures, twist-offs are the clear winner when it comes to the frequency of flawed wines. My colleague Harvey Steiman recently conducted a tasting of older Chehalem Pinot Noirs under twist-off that suggested they're superior closures for aging wines as well. They are not now, and may never be, the preferred choice for the wines that vintners present as their best. But those who appreciate the advancements of twist-offs are making their case. Consumer acceptance is stronger with every vintage.

In the end, the last holdouts against the march of the twist-offs will be ultrahigh-end wines for which image and prestige trump quality.

Suspected Cork Taint Rate in Wine Spectator's Blind California Wine Tastings

2015: 2.63 percent tainted

2014: 4.53 percent tainted

2013: 4.28 percent tainted

2012: 3.73 percent tainted

2011: 3.87 percent tainted

2010: 4.76 percent tainted

2009: 6.9 percent tainted

2008: 7.5 percent tainted

2007: 9.5 percent tainted

2006: 7.0 percent tainted

2005: 7.5 percent tainted

For a counterpoint in the corks vs. screwcaps debate, see senior editor Bruce Sanderson's video with Domaine Laroche's Grégory Viennois on the winery's decision to switch from screwcaps back to natural corks.

Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  February 3, 2016 1:44pm ET
You would think that one bad bottle of expensive wine, much less 3.5 percent, would convert most if not all. My snob does not extend to closures, give me screwcaps and no bad bottles any day.
Terry French
Columbia, MO —  February 4, 2016 10:31am ET
I have worked in wine retail and did a lot of wine tasting. I was less apt to detect corkiness in wines than some of our other wine consultants. I would guess that my rate is less than 1%. I probably encounter about the same rate of problems with screw cap closures that result in dull, flat flavors. I do believe that continued efforts to improve cork sanitation will lessen the problem. As long as I can return those 3 or 4 bottles per year, I prefer a natural cork closure. But then, I'm just an average wine drinker who can't smell a bee passing gas at 100 yards.
Cameron Hughes
San Francisco, CA —  February 4, 2016 11:18am ET
Jim - I suspect much of the decline also has to do with the widespread use of DIAM and NOMACORK closures...both of which, in my experience, are TCA free or virtually TCA free in the case of DIAM. Having trialed closures over a variety of bottlings over the years (very few winemakers bottle 50+ wines a year from around the globe as does my team) I am confident in saying no one closure suits all wines. The winemaker needs to take many factors into account such as the vineyard, winemaking techniques and final chemistry, intended usage and drink dates ,etc when bottling under a particular closure. We have found vast differences between closures when used on the same bottling run. Unfortunately, its an imperfect science, more gut and experience than anything, and will likely remain as such.
James Laube
Napa —  February 4, 2016 12:14pm ET
I expect you're correct Cameron, and there will never be one seal to please all. Keeping the focus on the quality of the wine delivered to the consumer is paramount. As corks age, they become fragile, which presents another dimension.

Ted V Phillips
Glen Ellyn, IL, USA —  February 4, 2016 1:31pm ET
My view is that essentially all whites should have twist-offs. They are drunk mostly at home or in a restaurant environment that notices only the most rare of whites, such as Montrachet.
Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  February 6, 2016 9:19am ET
The "average" wine consumer would much rather a "pop" then a "crack" when opening a bottle.

The average wine consumer is not spending 100's or even 50 bucks a bottle.

The average wine consumer can not detect TCA.

People that read Wine Spectator ARE NOT the average wine consumer.

What am I saying? I am saying that the average wine consumer could care less about this discussion....

....yet, people let us find it to be enthralling.....for many reasons.

Keep up the good work, James! Love reading your blogs and monthly articles in the mag!
Richard R Freedman
metro NYC —  February 17, 2016 12:30pm ET
It would be helpful when trying to assess the annual reduction in cork taint to know what % of the wines tasted each year were screw cap. Please provide that info if possible. Thank you.
Robert Taylor
New York —  February 17, 2016 12:38pm ET
Thank you Richard,

The taint percentages listed are the percentages of only the cork-bottled wines that showed indications of taint. Wines bottled under screwcap are not included in those percentages. As the article also states, the percentage of wines reviewed that have been bottled under screwcap has risen consistently each year, but those bottlings are not included in the cork taint percent calculation, which is only based on the number of wines sealed with cork.

Rusty Eddy
Healdsburg —  March 8, 2016 6:09pm ET

Does the Spectator keep track of screw cap vs. synthetic closure results? Cameron Hughes mentioned Nomacorc, which I noticed at Unified has a cool new organic closure made from sugar cane (not sure if that's synthetic or not)... Count me in as one of those consumers that - all things being equal - will pick up a screw cap or alternative closure every time.

James Laube
Napa —  March 8, 2016 6:35pm ET
On sugar cane, not sure either. I'm pleased you're onboard the train to the future, Rusty, as those who use twistoffs (the better word) make a statement whether they intend to or not. That is it's what's in the bottle and preserving that integrity is more important than image and all that romance that comes with the pop of a corky wine.
Robert Taylor
New York —  March 9, 2016 9:46am ET

Senior editor Dana Nigro has recently covered Nomacorc's Select Bio Series, derived from sugarcane.

You can read more about it in her blog, here: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48420
Christopher Johnson
Northville, MI —  March 25, 2016 9:33pm ET
After thinking about this for a while, it seems to me that it would be much fairer to actually test the "suspected" tainted cork. With years of having wine at home and while dining, I can only think of 4 times this has been a problem. This would be 30 years of tasting wine.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  March 29, 2016 3:20pm ET
It is LONG overdue that the notion of zero defect in our wine closures arrives. I am happy that Jim has been an advocate of twist offs for 20+ years which has pushed a few vintners to change form a natural cork to something new and improved. I like NomaCorc because they are always inventing a better menu of closure choices for achieving zero defect toppers. Whether you pick a twist off like the Kiwis and the Aussies etc. or a plant based cork like Select Bio Thank you Dana! http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48420
Diam is nice cork too. How long would a beer or spirits producer, whether large or craft, put up with a failure rate of 2% - 7+% ....about 1 NY minute. Thank you all for helping bring the 21st century technology to wine - we need it! Cheers to innovation

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