Hogue Cellars, one of the largest producers in Washington, has joined the rising tide of wineries that are switching to screw caps, after completing an in-house study examining closure alternatives. The winery presented the results at the annual American Society of Enology and Viticulture conference, held in San Diego last week.
Hogue will use screw caps on 70 percent of its 500,000-case annual production as of the 2004 vintage. The caps will be used for Hogue's Fruit Forward line of wines, which retail for about $10 and are intended for near-term drinking. Since the 1999 vintage, Hogue has bottled these wines -- which include a Chardonnay, a Cabernet-Merlot blend and a Pinot Grigio -- with a synthetic stopper called Supreme Corq.
The winery's closure study, begun in 2001 and completed in 2003, highlighted ongoing limitations of both synthetic stoppers and natural cork. Its findings are in line with a comparable Australian Wine Research Institute study, published in 2001.
The Hogue study examined five types of wine closures: natural cork, two synthetic stoppers (Neocork and Supreme Corq) and two kinds of screw caps (Stelvin with Etain liner and Stelvin with Saranex liner). A panel that comprised Hogue staff and industry professionals tasted two wines -- the 1999 Hogue Merlot Genesis and the 2000 Hogue Chardonnay Fruit Forward -- at six-month intervals for 30 months.
Among their findings were that bottles sealed with the synthetic stoppers tended to oxidize after about two years, while wines with natural cork stoppers had unacceptably high levels of cork taint -- contamination by TCA, a chemical that mutes fruit and imparts musty flavors and aromas to wines. Another drawback noted with natural cork was that the bottles aged inconsistently, depending on the seal maintained by the individual corks.
The results didn't surprise David Forsyth, Hogue's director of winemaking. Hogue staff tastings (of their own wines and those produced by competitors) have revealed an 18 percent incidence of cork taint. And batches of corks purchased by the estate are often judged substandard. "We do a lot of sensory work on incoming corks, and we had to look at 40 different lots before finding one we could use. And even that had 2 percent taint," he said.
Hogue chose screw caps because the closure prevented oxidation -- keeping wines fresh and fruity -- and eliminated the taint associated with cork. "We're trying to address the insidious nature of cork taint," Forsyth said. "Many people don't associate it with corks. They associate it with bad winemaking."
The sensory test results led the winery to select the Stelvin screw cap with a Saranex liner, which permits some air to reach a wine. The panel found that its modest air exposure allowed both the red and the white to develop slowly, and also prevented the formation of the off aromas that can plague bottled wines when conditions are too reductive, or oxygen deprived. While test results suggested that screw caps most benefited the white wines, they will also be used for the reds.
The switch will require an up-front investment of about $200,000 for different bottling equipment. Long-term, however, it will save money because screw caps cost about 6 or 7 cents apiece, whereas Supreme Corq runs 8 cents and higher-grade natural cork starts at about 12 cents.
Forsyth said he anticipates allocating the saved money to screw-cap educational programs directed at both consumers and industry professionals. "We've made the decision to go there and now there's no turning back," he said.
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