Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Going for closure

An article that appeared in the March 2009 issue of Decanter magazine

Ten years ago, if anybody had predicted that I would one day lose sleep over the best way to seal a million bottles of wine, they might as well have suggested that I’d be thinking of methods to steal the stuff. But a lot can happen in a decade. Back in the last year of the 20th century, I divided my time between writing articles and books on wine, and chairing wine competitions in London and Asia. It was then that I started to metamorphose into a dangerously geeky creature: a person for whom wine closures would be a special subject. The process began gradually, as I began to notice how many wines in the competitions were tainted with TCA by bad corks and a recogniseably “flat” character of wines that were stoppered with a then-recently developed and widely used “technical closure” called Altec that was made of tiny cork granules and touted as being totally free of TCA.

In those long-distant days, screwcaps were still more or less restricted to the cheapest most basic wines. The talk was all of synthetic corks which were predicted by some to replace the real thing completely. But there were also suggestions that they caused wine to age prematurely and broke corkscrews. And then there were the spin-doctoring skills of the larger cork manufacturers who not only brazenly denied that TCA taint was a problem, but also seemed to be associated with scaremongering rumours linking alternative closures to cancer.

I remember a number of thought-provoking moments. There was the encounter with a brilliantly youthful 25 year old screwcap-sealed Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Riesling which proved that white wine at least could age perfectly well without a cork. There was the well preserved 1907 Piper Heidsieck rescued after 86 years on the ocean floor during which time it presumably didn’t do much “breathing” through its cork. And then in 2000 there was the blind tasting of wines produced by the then newly-formed Union des Grands Crus de Chablis at which low level taint or random oxidation caused one of Michel Laroche’s wines to tasted uncharacteristically flat and dull - and drove M Laroche to use screwcaps for his Grand Cru.

The more I thought about the issue of closures the more fascinated and frustrated I became by the lack of available information. So, in a moment of madness (I really did have better things to do with my life), I started a non-commercial website called corkwatch.com which impartially covered news about all kinds of natural and alternative closures. Over its nearly five years’ lifespan, the site raised issues such as the blame that corks unfairly received for TCA-taint from newly treated timber in wineries and cellars. It looked at rubbery “reduction” odours from screwcapped bottles (almost always a result of winemaking not being adapted to the closures) and scraped the surface of the mysteriously short-lived white Burgundies of the late 1990s (probably caused by a combination of factors including insufficient use of sulphur and faulty corks). It covered the threats to Iberian wildlife caused by the move away from natural corks, and the stories of unfortunate producers such as Elio Altare in Barolo who lost an entire vintage to tainted corks. Perhaps most usefully, its existence also prompted me in the summer of 2003 at the Vinexpo wine fair, to set up the first blind comparative tasting of older wines sealed with corks and alternatives.

My experience at that tasting - where the alternatives, including a 1983 Beyers Truter Paul Sauer from South Africa generally showed well, left me with no patience for the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad absolutism of the pro-cork and pro-screwcap lobbies. To talk generically about”cork” is like referring to “beef” or “claret”. There are 700 manufacturers in Portugal alone; some are a lot more conscientious than others. Synthetic corks vary too, as indeed do screwcaps, though this last category does seems to be more homogenous than corks. Some wines suit some types of closures better than others. Any discussion of the way a wine improves with time under a cork, for example, is of absolutely zero relevance to a Pinot Grigio or a rosé that’s intended to be drunk within weeks of its purchase. On the other hand, despite my deep misgivings about the unreliability of corks, I’d still rather not unscrew a Romanée-Conti.

In 2005, after the sale of the International Wine Challenge and my retirement from the role of its co-chairman, these questions ceased to be hypothetical. With former flying winemaker Hugh Ryman and label designer Kevin Shaw as partners, I became involved in the business of creating, branding and packaging some entirely new ranges of wines. Working with producers in France, Spain and Italy, our self-appointed role was – and is – to come up with wines that look and taste good and sell in reasonable volumes in a wide range of countries, for the most part at under £7 or the local equivalent. Hugh and I had mixed, and in some cases, differing views on the subject of what we would put in the necks of our bottles. We had to consider a wide range of criteria. Performance - which, for us, meant consistency and an absence of taint rather than long-term ageing - was crucial, but we also had to consider price. When you are being paid €3 a bottle, it makes no sense to spend a sixth of that sum on a top-quality cork, or the new glass Vini-Lok stopper which might score highly in the next category: aesthetics. Then of course, there are environmental factors, ranging from preserving Portuguese flora and fauna to carbon footprints. For some people, of course, these last considerations are sufficient in themselves to tip the scales in favour of natural cork, despite its shortcomings And I respect that view, just as I respect the decision by a biodynamic producer like Vanya Cullen in Australia to seal her bottles with screwcaps in order to allow the flavour of her “terroir” to get into the glass without any interference from a closure.

But it’s not that easy. British supermarkets, for example, don’t want natural corks in our kinds of wines, because they don’t like having to deal with bad bottles. And ever since they switched to synthetics and screwcaps, the number of returns has dropped dramatically. As the price of corks has risen, getting even half-decent ones for much less than 25 euro cents is almost impossible. Reliable Nomacorks, cost 5-7 cents by comparison, while screwcaps cost 12 cents. These, however, need no capsules, so ultimately work out at around the same cost as the synthetic closure. Until recently, it was generally agreed that synthetics offer very short-term prospects for wine, but Nomacork’s manufacturers now guarantee their closures for up to three years, rather longer than some of those white Burgundies survived.

For our Greener Planet organic wines, we decided, with the encouragement of the US retailer who is our biggest customer, to use natural corks. Corks have certainly improved in quality over the last few years, but random oxidation is still a problem and any suggestion, such as the one made in a recent BBC 2 programme, that TCA taint is a thing of the past is frankly laughable. I did not, for example, appreciate opening a nastily corked bottle of Greener Planet in the tasting room of one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. Happily I had a perfectly sound spare bottle to hand, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of our customers have their own disappointing experiences when they pour this wine. Ideally, we’ll switch from these to Diam, the reliable and relatively environmentally friendly successor to the awful Altecs that so used to bother me a decade ago. But I can’t help noticing that Bonterra, my favourite US organic brand has recently moved from corks to screwcaps…

That decision may help us to persuade our US customers to let us use screwcaps for our non-organic Grand Noir Chardonnay-Viognier and Viognier-Chardonnay - and possibly the Pinot Noir - but so far , they have more or less insisted on Nomacorks for both reds and whites, and with sales of over 750,000 this year, we’ve had absolutely no complaints. I suspect that one of the attractions of these synthetics, apart from their reliability, is that for the casual corkscrew user, they may actually pass for natural corks, and in America, this still seems to be preferable to either screwcaps or Diam. But, I’d be very surprised if this didn’t change, and if screwcaps didn’t become as acceptable in the US as they are in Britain. Bag-in-box was, after all, similarly slow to take off on the west coast of the Atlantic, but now has a huge following.

But we’re now looking at other forms of closure and indeed bottle. The Vive la Revolution and Greener Planet Sustainable wines we’re just launching both come in a low carbon footprint, easily recyclable, one-litre PET bottle which has a built-in PET screwcap and a guaranteed two year shelf life. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these, any more than screwcaps are the ultimate answer for wine; they are merely another stage in vinous evolution. After countless false starts in Portugal, new NASA technology may finally get rid of TCA taint from corks, but I still doubt that millions of new wine drinkers in China and India are all going to buy corkscrews. The challenge for us all lies in finding ways to package wines that are both good for the liquid and good for the planet. And for the Portuguese farmers and manufacturers to come up with profitable alternative uses for the bark from their trees.

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