A couple of weeks ago we happened across this spectacular corkscrew machine built by an artist called Rob Higgs. and a Youtube video showing it in action. It’s a thing to behold, with some 250 parts, cast in bronze. I’d hate to be charged with polishing it.
Surely this thing would give Rube Goldberg a run for the money. There must have been a fashion early in the 20th century for artists drawing fantastic complicated mechanisms that perform simple tasks — the United Kingdom had a contemporary of Goldberg called Heath Robinson. Production of this device is limited to 25 units. The first three sold to exclusive hotels for £100,000, and the remaining units are available and priced at £75,000 each, which is about $119,000 US.
This had us thinking about wine closures — specifically, screw tops. When we started on this adventure in Virginia wine, the growers and wineries we talked to were a bit adamant about using cork, because they felt it helped give legitimacy to an industry perceived by outsiders as not the same quality as the usual suspects. This was over six years ago, and public sentiment appears to have caught up with the technology. For example, Richard Woodward reported in Decanter Magazine last November 2011 that acceptance of screwcaps had more than doubled for UK consumers since the last survey in 2003. The survey was conducted by research company Wine Intelligence for its 2011 Closures Report, and the results showed that 85 percent of the regular wine-drinking population now accepts screwcaps – compared to only 41% in 2003.
Wine consumers in the United States, on the other hand, have been slower to embrace alternative closures. A survey by Tragon, Corp. published in December 2011 found that natural cork remains the overwhelming choice for U.S. wine drinkers, because it conveys higher quality than alternative closures.
According to the survey, 94 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to purchase wine with natural cork. A nearly equal number, 93 percent, said that natural cork conveys high or very high quality.
“These results are remarkable because we rarely find such overwhelming agreement among consumers,” said Rebecca Bleibaum, Tragon’s Vice President, Sensory and Consumer Insights. “We consider 70 percent to be a powerful plurality, but 94 percent positive purchase interest is almost unheard of.”
Other key findings included:
- Only 45 percent of respondents said they would consider purchasing wine with a screw-cap. Seventy-two percent said they would consider wines with a synthetic closure.
- For gifts, dinner parties and special occasions, as many as 90 percent of respondents said they would prefer wines sealed with cork. Sixty percent of respondents said wines with synthetic closures were inappropriate for gifts, and 78 percent indicated they would not consider giving screw-capped wines as gifts.
- Compared to similar Tragon studies conducted in 2004 and 2007, consumer opinion changed the most for screw-caps, with the closures having reached their peak of popularity in 2007. Compared to four years ago, the closure is now seen as less appropriate for all occasions.
- Half of respondents thought that wines with a screw-cap were of low quality. Only 11 percent indicated that screw-caps conveyed high quality.
What is it about the U.S. wine drinker’s resistance to progress? It’s like or refusal to embrace a dollar coin, though intellectually we know that its the right thing to do. We had a discussion about it with one wine merchant about it, who said “If the wine isn’t going to be aged more than 10 years, there’s no reason not to use screw caps.”
We will admit the absence of ceremony when opening a screwcap enclosure is a bit of a letdown. There must be some way to inject a little romance into the act. I recall a server in one restaurant who wrapped a towel over the end as if opening a Champagne bottle; that small gesture elevated the experience a tiny bit, though one might argue that concealing the deed is somehow dishonest.
International Screwcap Initiative
Some years ago Australian and New Zealand winemakers took the lead and launched the International Screwcap Initiative to promote the closure. The rationale and evidence are compelling, backed by decades of research. Wine geeks know all the arguments, but to summarize, here are the most compelling reasons:
- There is no possibility of cork taint – from corks contaminated by the organic pesticide
- The wine suffers no sporadic oxydation – from oxygen entering through irregular or defective corks
- No flavor modification from exposure to cork – no flavors are imparted by the corks, since the screwcap material is completely neutral
- Screwcaps provide a reliable long-term seal – the industry is working hard to change the association of screwcaps with wines that must be drunk young.
- Screwcaps simplify cellaring and storage – there is no need to store bottles on their sides, and no concern about maintaining humidity.
- Screwcaps are environmentally friendly – screwcaps are constructed of aluminum and can be recycled.
- Wine can age under screwcaps – This, to us, is the most controversial and most compelling. The ISI Initiative website offers this summary:
Following the AWRI/ACI closures trial in the 1970s, Dr Bryce Rankine stated that, “… the range of wines examined retained their quality with a stelvin closure significantly better than with a cork.” Subsequent trials have proven that screwcaps retain fruit, diminish the incidence of oxidised characteristics and bottle variation better than any other closure currently available on the market.
Before deciding to bottle their Chablis Grand Crus under screwcaps, Michel Laroche undertook similar comparative experiments, using 11 different types of closure over a 5 year period. His findings confirm the AWRI results and the percentage of his wines sealed under screwcap has significantly increased since he introduced them with the 2002 vintage.
Among some of the oldest red wines under screwcaps is a 1966 Mercurey which, when tasted 38 years later, showed remarkable freshness and structure and samples from Australian wineries confirm these results.
Perhaps one of the greatest areas of debate is the importance of oxygen in winemaking and bottle ageing. Revered oenologists, such as Ribereau-Gayon and Peynaud, have long claimed that oxygen ingress is not a condition for wine ageing in the bottle, or for the development of bottle bouquet.
“Reactions that take place in bottled wine do not require oxygen.” Jean Ribereau-Gayon.
“… it is the opposite of oxidation, a process of reduction or asphyxia, by which wine develops in the bottle.” Emile Peynaud
The reactions that produce what we know as bottle bouquet are reductive, and occur at low redox potentials in the relative absence of oxygen. The rate of oxygen ingress through a screwcap with a tin liner is very small, and appears to be comparable to that of a very good natural cork or technical cork. It is also very consistent, thereby minimising bottle variation.
Have Virginia wineries embraced it? We know of only two that use screwcaps exclusively, and that’s Blenheim Vineyards in Charlottesville and Tarara Winery in Loudoun County, Virginia.
We haven’t done a scientific survey (or for that matter an unscientific one), but we have gave them a try with our 2011 white wines, and will continue to use them for our “accessible” white wines — but we will likely continue to use natural cork for the reds. If we didn’t, how could we use that fabulous corkscrew?