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What's the Fuss with Screwcaps? (Is there a Fuss?)

Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005

Grosset Watervale Riesling 2005, Clare Valley

Rutherglen Estates “The Reunion” 2004, Victoria, Australia

Plumpjack Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2003

Bonny Doon 2003 Big House Red, California

Chehalem Pinot Gris Reserve 2004, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Domaine Laroche Chablis

 

By Jim Clarke

For the past few years, the wine press has been trying to make screwcaps one of the burning controversies of our time (within the narrow world of wine, that is). Wine Spectator built a whole issue around the subject, pitting two of their top columnists, James Laube and James Suckling, against each other. Newspaper columnists love to talk about it, as it invites easy jokes about jug wines and a “look how far wine has come” angle that they know will appeal to both the aficionados and the less-serious winedrinkers in their audience. Wine columnists love to find a subject that might inspire debate and steps outside of the “The Next Hot Grape” or Bordeaux’s Stunning 200X Vintage” routine.

I have, by and large, kept my mouth shut on the issue. Wait and see, I said to myself. Like many of us, I enjoy the ritual of the cork. However, I also know that sinking feeling that comes when you open a fine wine – one you’ve tracked down, paid through the nose for, and cellared meticulously, perhaps – only to encounter the smell of wet cardboard because the wine is corked. This, of course, is the prime argument for switching to screwcaps – no more corked wines.

Is the public put-off by screwcaps? Since I spend a lot of time in restaurants, I keep an eye on how people react when presented with a screwcap-sealed wine. To my slight surprise, they don’t react very much; in fact, the servers often seem more surprised than the guest. I’ve watched a server present a bottle to the guest, pull out their wine key, and attempt to jam the corkscrew into the metal top – with amusing results, as the corkscrew bounced off the screwcap leaving nothing but a slight ding and the server’s face turned crimson with embarrassment.

(A note on opening screwcaps: the most usual, “Stelvin” screwcap design features an aluminum sleeve that extends down the bottleneck about 1.5”; when you unscrew the cap, this sleeve simply pops off, separating from the cap itself. On occasion I’ve seen servers try to hold the sleeve to prevent it from turning – an unnecessary move that won’t get the bottle open. It’s like pushing and pulling at a door at the same time.)

Perhaps retail buyers are enduring similar travails at home, but they seem to be pretty blasé about the supposedly controversial closure. Servers and sommeliers I’ve talked to report few complaints from guests.

A few servers I spoke to questioned whether the guest really needed to taste the wine if there was no chance that it could be corked. Absolutely yes! Screwcaps cure one problem: cork taint related to the chemical TCA 2,4,6; a screwcap wine that’s been stored or shipped badly could still go off because of excessive heat, for example. In one surprising case, Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma developed a TCA problem that started before the wine ever reached a bottle – a drain in the fermentation room was harboring the culprit (The problem has since been fixed.).

Screwcap enthusiasts like the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative cite other advantages as well: consistent aging, without bottle variation due to differences in corks (Perhaps putting an end to the adage that there are no great wines, just great bottles of wine.); upright storage, since there’s no cork to keep moist; and screwcaps are not affected by humidity. Bonny Doon, in California, has been supporting screwcap closures for a while, with their trademark humor. (One of their “Top Ten Reasons for Using Screwcaps” is “Never pay corkage fees again.” I disagree; whatever the fate of corks, I doubt restaurants will switch to charging “screwage fees.” It would invite too much attention to their markups, if nothing else.)

Winemakers do have to make some adjustments when they make a wine that is destined for a screwcap, especially regarding sulphur compounds, which are often used to prevent oxidation during the winemaking process. This can give some screwcap-sealed wines can have a whiff of brimstone to them, but this generally blows off after a few minutes. I sometimes decant these wines to help release and remove these “reductive” aromas. I think this is probably a transitional problem, but winemakers who oppose screwcaps cite these sorts of aromas as their biggest concern.

The big remaining myth is that screwcap-sealed wines won’t age properly, because corks allow a infinitesimal interchange of oxygen that a perfect seal doesn’t, and this extra oxygen is integral to the aging process. Research from the 60s through the present suggests that this is nonsense: bottle-aging, it seems, is not an oxidative process, so everything a wine needs to age well is already in the bottle. When you compare the aromas of a well-aged wine and compare it to those of a wine made oxidatively, like Sherry, this makes sense – the different results suggest a different process.

Harry Peterson-Nedry at Chehalem Wines in Oregon draws an analogy on their website that I wish I had thought of first: “I view this move a little like going from vinyl to CDs in music. Even if we still have a turntable (read corkscrew) for romance and old time’s sake, we’ll seek digital purity in the long-run—startlingly bright and clear, as if in the concert hall, without scratches, hiss and warping in the sun.”

Miguel Torres of Spain feels otherwise; he is quoted on Chehalem’s site as saying, “We believe there is a value to the glamour and ritual of the cork.” A good wine already bottles up glamour and the romance of a region’s history, its climate, terroir, the weather of an individual vintage, the personality of the winemaker, and the immense enjoyment that comes from sharing it with friends. Does a game of Russian Roulette each time you open a bottle really add that much value?

At this point, screwcaps are most common on dry white wines; red wine makers are slower to make the leap. The Southern Hemisphere leads the way; in New Zealand and Australia both the wineries and the public have taken to screwcaps enthusiastically. Try some of these wines:

Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005 medium-bodied, working the richer, passionfruit-and-mango side of the grape, with good focus and length. New Zealand is the home of the screwcap; the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative estimates that in 2006 90% of the country’s wines will be sealed with a screwcap.

Grosset Watervale Riesling 2005, Clare Valley full-rich, and dry, with lots of lime and floral aromas backed up by a powerful minerality. This wine is drinking well now, but will also age well if you want to try your own screwcap aging experiment.

Rutherglen Estates “The Reunion” 2004, Victoria, Australia A Rhone-style blend of Mourvedre, Shiraz, and Grenache, “The Reunion” shows lots of red berry pruits like cherry and strawberry touched by shades of vanilla and pepper. It’s fairly rich and smooth, full-bodied but not overwhelmingly big.

Plumpjack Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2003 Plumpjack offers a chance to compare and contrast the same wine in bottled with a screwcap or a cork. Either way, it’s a classic Napa Chard, full-bodied with lots of tropical fruit flavors and a toasty oak and vanilla frame.

Bonny Doon 2003 Big House Red, California Randall Grahm’s rich, fruity, and affordable blend of Italian and southern French red varietals, with lots of raspberry, licorice, and cherry aromas.

Chehalem Pinot Gris Reserve 2004, Willamette Valley, Oregon One of the most Alsatian of Oregon’s Pinot Gris, with notes of honey, citrus, peach and flowers. Medium-bodied, with refreshing acidity.

Domaine Laroche Chablis It’s not just the New World; a few years ago this Chablis producer decided to bottle all its wines right up to Grand Cru level in screwcaps. Give any of them a try for that classic crisp, intense Chablis character.

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       Published: May 2006
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