Part of the grand mystique of enjoying a fine wine is the romantic allure of removing the wine cork and hearing it pop as it slides out of the bottle. When dining out, watching the dashing sommelier open a bottle of wine is the cherished first act in the dinner play.
Ask most Americans and they’ll tell you no one buys wine with a screw cap unless they’re homeless and drink it out of a brown paper bag. Traditions die hard, but this is, after all, the 21st century — the age of information explosion, unprecedented knowledge, and the iPad.
And the fact is, corks dry out and crumble, grow mold or fungus, and allow air into the bottle. Corks can contaminate wine and compromise its flavor through “cork taint” which affects up to 15% of all wine.
Robert Parker, dubbed “The Pope of the vineyards” predicted wines bottled with corks will be in the minority by 2015. “The cork industry has not invested in techniques that will prevent ‘corked’ wines afflicted with the musty, moldy, wet-basement smell that ruins up to 15 percent of all wine bottles,” he wrote. The one exception, he said, would be “great wines meant to age for 20 to 30 years that will still be primarily cork finished…Stelvin, the screw cap of choice, will become the standard for a majority of the world’s wines,” he announced.
Switzerland uses more than 15 million Stelvin-type closures and US usage isn’t far behind. While some French and Italian producers are starting to capitulate, it is New World wine producers who are really driving the movement, says Adam Centamore with WineTastetv. “South Africa, Austria, and even Californian wine makers in Sonoma and Napa Valley are joining Australia and New Zealand in making the Stelvin closure more prevalent than ever before.
Produced by French manufacturer Le Bouchage Mecanique, the Stelvin closure first appeared in the late 1950s, when Australia’s Yalumba Winery was among the first to test the newly-created cap.
The Stelvin closure was designed to prevent unwanted excess oxygen from seeping into the bottle through the micro-porous cork, and eliminate cork taint. Natural and synthetic corks both allow oxygen into the bottle, and the result is an inconsistent aging of the wine.
Not everyone agrees, including some top sommeliers. Marco Pelletier from the Hotel Bristol, which has a Michelin three-starred restaurant, told the newspaper Le Parisien: “Cork stops offer more subtle sensations and aromas and allow the wine to age better. I recently participated in a blind wine tasting of Burgundy grand crus – some with cork closures and others with screw tops. The difference was notable,” he said.
After comparing more than 3,000 bottles with various closures over a seven-year period, Dr. Rankine, one of Australia’s foremost wine researchers, wrote, “The range of wines examined retained their quality with a Stelvin closure significantly better than with a cork.”
WineTastetv points out that in 2001, 1% of New Zealand wineries were using the closure; in 2004, usage eclipsed 70%. In July of 2004, Corbett Canyon became the first million-plus case winery to exclusively use screw caps, and they currently ship over three million cases a year with the shiny aluminum tops.
Another four-year study by Hogue Cellars of Washington claims screw cap closures were proven to hold fruit character and maintain freshness more effectively than both natural and synthetic corks.
Some describe Stelvin-closed wine as “young, fresh, fruity, and aromatic,” and contrast cork-closed wine as “less aromatic but much more complex.” There are wine stewards who contend that the cork allows wine to breathe, and no one knows how screw caps will react to long periods of aging.
But as Fred Dame, President of the Court of Master Sommeliers, points out: The majority of wine consumed in this country is drunk within eight hours of its purchase…And most new homes are built without cellars anyway.