Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Another minor chapter in the cork/screwcap debate

I didn’t mention in my post below about our pre-Christmas tasting, but a bottle of Chateau d’Estoublon Red 2006 also went down very well. A bottle of 2007 white from the same grower, however, was strangely muted, and certainly not a patch on the bottle I drank whilst preparing the tasting note for my website (see my 14 December entry below). Turns out that it was mildly corked – but corked, nevertheless. Which got me thinking that I’ve had a bit of a bad run with corked or faulty bottles at tastings, in the last couple of months.

Natural corks - good ones, of course!

I should state here and now that I hate screwcaps on wine - I really hate them. Admittedly, it is partly a romantic/traditional thing, but it is also down to the fact that screwcaps (a) have a long way to go before their long-term usefulness is proven and (b) are prone to their own set of problems. But that is a whole different debate. It has to be said, of course, that the problems with cork are well-documented and manifold. Chateau d’Estoublon clearly buy the most expensive (and supposedly the best) corks, as do their neighbours, Domaine de Trévallon – indeed, I believe that these corks are priced not in cents, but Euros (2 or 3 per cork, actually!) and therefore add considerably to the basic cost of the bottled wine. But in my experience, that doesn't seem to give them a significant advantage over other (usually much less expensive) corks used by many of my other growers. I've been in the business long enough now to gather a good deal of anecdotal evidence about which growers have the least problems with corked wines - and, unfortunately, neither of these growers are top of the list, expensive corks or not.

I had cause to contact Domaine de Trévallon recently (a bottle of 1999 without a label, would you believe!) and I took the opportunity to tell them about a couple of problem bottles I'd had some time ago. I visited in August 2007 (before I started to sell their wines) and bought one bottle each of the 1999, 2000 and 2001 red, which were put into a 3-bottle wood presentation box. In 2008, when I was preparing for a spectacular Trévallon vertical tasting in Nottingham, I opened the 2001 and 2000 and both were badly affected by TCA (I haven't yet opened the 1999 from the same box). I mentioned that it is very unusual for 2 out of 3 bottles of wine to be "corked" and maybe it was just a very unfortunate coincidence. Or, I wondered, is it possible for TCA to be transmitted from the pine box (or for the other bottles to be affected by 1 bad bottle in the box)? This is, to a certain extent, a rhetorical question and I guess there is not much more a grower can do than to use the most expensive (best?) corks available to them – other than move to an alternative closure method. That said, a good bottle of Trévallon (or Estoublon, for that matter) is still one of the world’s great wine experiences. And (as a friend of mine recently remarked) every single one of my greatest and most sublime wine experiences have come from bottles sealed under cork. However, as long as natural cork closures are still around, TCA will remain a problem for the wine drinker. But there may be a happy medium…………….

DIAM corks - are these the answer?

Personally, I think the answer to the TCA problem lies with DIAM (pictured above) each one of which is made up of thousands of tiny granules of natural cork. During the manufacturing process, the granules are treated and cleaned, which ensures that any traces of TCA (and any other undesirable compounds the cork may be harbouring) are eradicated. The granules are then bound together to form a closure that is as close as possible to the shape, feel and texture of a single-piece natural cork - and they are guaranteed TCA-free.  A couple of my growers already use DIAM corks for all of their wines, notably Domaine de Montesquiou in Jurancon. And the results seem to be very promising indeed - i.e. I have no faulty or corked bottles to report so far. And these are wines which certainly rely on their vitality and fruit to show their best and every bottle I have tasted since they moved to DIAM has been spot-on and fresh as can be. The only thing that has still to be proven with DIAM closures is how well the wines will age over the longer term. Are they good for 5 years, 10 years, 20, more? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure – unless the producers of natural, single-piece corks eradicate the TCA problem pretty damn quick, their days are numbered.


AlanM said...

Glad to read you're feeling better Leon.
I think screwcaps have their place. Half a dozen or so NZ whites in the last couple of months have tasted fresh and certainly a great deal better than a number of whites from the Old World, especially Alsace for some reason, which have been ruined by cork taint (and often at a heavy price). I accept they have much to prove still but I feel happier opening some wines under screwcap than cork.
I hope that DIAM is the answer

Leon Stolarski said...

Thanks for your good wishes Alan - and a happy New Year to you.

Although (as you will have gathered!) I am no fan of screwcaps, I acknowledge that they have a place for cheaper wines, and especially those which are designed to be drunk young. Frankly, though, I think certain types of synthetic "cork" are equally up to that particular task - notably, Nomacorc (the things with a spongy middle) - but not those hideous solid plastic-y things that need the strength of a weightlifter to remove!

AlanM said...

Happy New Year to you Leon and all your family and friends. 2009 has been a year of discovery for me in the Languedoc Roussillon area through yourself and a month there higlighted by a visit to Treloar. Thanks for your work I appreciate your work and look forward to more of the same.
I hate those plastic corks too, they destroy corkscrews at a furious pace.
On the subject of corked wines I was talking to a sommelier in a well known Newcastle restaurant who many times has noticed diners leave much of their wine and when he has tested it the wine was corked, but the guests were too intimidated or unknowing to say anything to him.
I have myself sent back 4 bottles of a wine (again Alsace!) before an untainted one appeared.
A whole case of a famous Chablis domaine bought in situ so impossible to return. I could go on but you'll gather I'm no cork fan.

AlanM said...

Me and my big mouth! I went to open a 2006 Cloudy Bay last night. It was very dull and flat, drinkable but unremarkable certainly none of the tropical nose or flavours that are to be expected. Screwcap of course. I've never known that with screwcap before. I'll keep my opinions to myself in future.

Leon Stolarski said...

I rest my case, Alan. Trouble with screwcaps is that they only need a bit of a knock to cause (often unseen) damage. Result - damaged wine, somewhere down the line.

Having said that, "dull and flat, drinkable but unremarkable" sounds pretty normal for Cloudy Bay - or Cloody Beer, as it is probably called in your neck of the woods. ;-) I think there are certainly better SB's to be had for a lot less money, these days. You should try some of my Neffies and La Colombette Sauvignons at around a third of the price (currently) for some real qpr. The La Colombette is even screwcapped(!)

Happy New Year to you.

AlanM said...

Leon, I have a bottle of the Neffies from you and will open it tomorrow. We are staying just round the corner form there next summer in fact. My wife loves CB though I keep telling her to try others. Anyway wishing you all the best and a healthy and prosperous new year.

Andy Leslie said...

Good thoughts on the closures debate, Leon - thanks.

For drinking young I'm very happy if my wine is sealed under a non-cork closure - screwcap, crown-cap, glass stopper all fine - I accept that there will be a small failure rate with these, but no risk of cork taint.

DIAM looks hopeful, but for wine for ageing in my cellar I still want cork. As per my comment in your post, without exception every sublime old wine I have ever tasted was from a cork-sealed bottle. For the wines I am cellaring, mostly old-world reds, there is simply no evidence from real old bottles that sealing them with anything other than cork will give me that potentially magnificent result. Yes, I will curse on the days that a patiently-cellared bottle is corked, but on the other (>90%? >95%?) of days I will be happy with what the closure has helped the wine achieve.

The problem for DIAM for me is that the kind of evidence that will convince me is from comparative tastings of wine aged for 10 or 20 years under DIAM and other closures. It's a long-term process to gather that evidence!

Happy new year, one & all. Keep up the good work Leon!


Cameron said...

The wine screwcap was created for the Swiss industry in the seventies. In class in 1984 we tasted 10 year old wine which had been both corked and capped. Since wines age very slowly when capped we preferred the capped wine as it preserved the delicate fruit of Swiss whites. How much do screwcaps have to prove when trials have been underway for more than thirty years? I would bottle with screwcaps tomorrow if it wasn't for the public perception.

Leon Stolarski said...


Despite my own personal perception or opinion, I think you underestimate the wider public perception. If anything, I would say that a large percentage of UK wine drinkers (if not a majority) are actually in favour of screwcaps.

As I said in my main post, I am not necessarily defending cork - but I am advocating DIAM cork. For me, it already ticks most of the boxes.

One thing I fail to understand, though, Cameron - why use screwcaps with the objective of ageing the wine very slowly or "preserving the delicate fruit"? If it is delicate and you don't want it to age, why not just drink it young? Conversely, what would be the point in bottling under screwcap a wine that might ordinarily take 20 or 30 years to reach maturity under a cork seal, if it would be unlikely to reach full maturity in the averge drinker's lifetime?

Cameron said...

I am a Washington State wine producer who trained in CH, thus my earlier comments. Also I have used DIAM corks and their predecessors since their introduction many years ago and so far have not discovered any ageing problems. In fact older DIAM corks are less prone to crumbling than older solid cork.

I use 'technical' corks because I believe they are the best compromise for the Washington State consumer who still perceives screwcaps as reserved for inexpensive wine (our per capita consumption still lags far behind that of England).

As a producer I cannot always count on selling all of a given vintage quickly. A screwcap can provide longer shelf life for lighter wines.

When I heard that Screaming Eagle was bottling their Cab Sauv with screwcaps I thought they were nuts, given my earlier comments on ageing. However in discussion with a Stelvin rep in the early nineties I was informed that you can now order oxygen permeable membranes for srewcaps, thus allowing ageing. Theoretically a case of wine with such membranes would age more consistently than even a technical cork.

Andy Leslie said...

Good to have your comments and perspective Cameron, and I can see that your perspective is different to mine and screwcaps tick your boxes. The trouble is that my boxes are different!

The bottles I am enjoying drinking the most from my cellar now are Northern Rhone and Burgundian and Piedmontese and Provencal and Californian reds of 10-25 years of age. All under cork. Whatever the Stelvin rep says about their technically-brilliant closures there is simply no real practical evidence that the wines I love will age in the way I like if sealed under anything except cork.

Best wishes