"Sales dropped. It was a disaster," the winery owner told me. Last year, I asked an Italian vintner if she had ever considered using screwcaps. That was the disaster. The winery had tried out screwcaps on its entry-level Valpolicella. Customers rejected the change; the decline was dramatic. After two vintages, the winery waved the white flag and switched back to corks.
To me, it was clear: The battle over how we seal our wines was finished. Corks won. And that means you and I lost.
Cork is an amazing substance. It's the Babel fish of wine—by some improbable chance, nature designed a tree with bark that is nearly perfect for sealing wine bottles, protecting the liquid inside and allowing us to age it for years, even decades. The cells of cork bark are lightweight, elastic and impermeable to air and most liquids.
More than 2,200 years ago, Romans were sealing jars of wine with cork stoppers, than slathering them with pitch to keep air out. The technology was forgotten during the Middle Ages, but when glass bottles came into fashion in the 17th century, corks proved the ideal stopper.
As magical as corks are, they have a fatal flaw. TCA, TBA and other compounds that can develop in natural corks (such as when plant phenols, chlorine and fungi all come into contact) can react with wine and ruin it. There is nothing worse than opening a bottle of wine and finding it smells of soggy boxes and tastes like locker room.
Actually, there is something worse—opening a bottle of wine that should be gorgeous and dynamic, but thanks to a small amount of TCA, it tastes as boring as the classifieds. When you taste a horribly corked wine, you send it back and ask for a good bottle. When you taste a slightly corked wine, you often assume that's just how the wine normally tastes and never buy it again.
The cork industry has worked tirelessly to improve cork production and wipe out the scourge of TCA. It has also worked tirelessly at marketing corks as higher quality, more romantic and more environmentally friendly than alternative closures. Cork producers' concern for the Iberian lynx is admirable.
Still, a significant percentage of corks are tainted. In 2016, Wine Spectator's Napa bureau tasted 5,065 wines sealed with corks and identified 3.83 percent as being tainted, up from 3.5 percent in 2015. If Amazon shipped products in boxes that ate the contents 3 percent of the time, people would head back to the malls. Yet we continue to demand our wines be sealed with corks.
I've suspected we're listening to our hearts, not our brains. But a recent study shows we're listening to the corks.
University of Oxford professor Charles Spence conducted a study of corks and screwcaps. Spence is a fascinating man, a psychologist who looks at how our senses all work together. He first grabbed headlines when he demonstrated that the pitch and volume of the sound of biting into a Pringles chip impacted how fresh people thought it tasted.
In the cork study, 140 people were asked to taste and rate two wines after having been played the sound of a cork popping or a screwcap being opened. They were then asked to open the bottle with the cork and the one with the screwcap and rate the wines again.
The two wines were actually identical, but participants rated the wine with a cork as 15 percent better in quality. We hear the cork pop, and our mind thinks the wine must be good. One important caveat: Spence's study was sponsored by the Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR).
I get it—corks do sound better, and the pulling of a cork connotes a special occasion, even on a typical day. But like many things in wine, romance and tradition are getting in the way of facts.
So here's my own experiment. The next time you buy a wine under screwcap, as you twist open the bottle, sing yourself a little song—operatically, like a country star or a yodeler, whatever you like. (I'm going to try to sound like Otis Redding and fail.) Perhaps, "This wine is TCA-freeeeeee!" or "This wine will taste the way it was meant to beeeeeeee!" And don't wave the white flag.
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