Put a Cork In It

Getting some closure on the newest trends in sealing wine.

Imagine this: You decide to finally use that nice bottle of red you've been hoarding. You pop. You pour. And you take your first sip.

Now, you may not be a wine connoisseur, but something is definitely wrong. It does not have a fruity aroma, a full palette, a smooth finish, or even notes of berry or vanilla. No, it tastes more like wet, moldy cardboard.

What you are experiencing is "cork taint," and we've discussed it briefly in this column in the past. Caused by the presence of the chemical trichloroanisole (TCA), cork taint isn't just responsible for ruined expectations, it causes one in every 20 bottles of wine to spoil. The problem has become so severe that this year two large wineries in California have put all sales of their wine on hold because of the cork taint in their cellars. Around the world, taint spoils millions of dollars worth of wine a year.

This cork conundrum has sparked a current debate about the best type of closure for wine, and in the last year the value of cork has been a hot topic in wine articles and seminars. Cork had widely been preferred as the best sealing agent because the porous quality of the material lets the wine breathe. With a cork, proper aging -- which is essential in producing a satisfying smell and taste -- is allowed. Yet aside from cork taint, a different problem arises when, as the wine ages, so does the cork. If you've ever broken one in half or found its pieces floating in your wine glass, you understand the frustration of a poorly made cork.

Several closure alternatives, however, promise positive improvements. Take the artificial cork. Usually an inner foam core of resin covered by a smooth, elastic material, an artificial cork doesn't require temperature stability or high humidity in the cellar, as do traditional corks. The Food and Drug Administration requires that artificial corks give off no smell or taste. St. Francis and Bonny Doon, two successful wineries in California, have been pioneers with this type of closure.

Another successful replacement is the old screw cap. Once associated with cheap wines, this kind of closure is making its way on to prominent and well-loved bottles. In fact, screw caps have been used for over 30 years, and in one study, wines sealed with them had stronger fruit flavors and less oxidized characters. Screw caps are gaining momentum worldwide, and are the predominant method of closure used by New Zealand wineries. In the United Kingdom, over 100 million bottles have switched to screw caps in the last 18 months, and the only three-star Michelin restaurant in London has six screw top wines on its list. Here in the U.S., the California cult wine Plumpjack uses the closure, and it is sold at $135 a pop. Or screw top, rather.

So why use natural cork? Let's go back to the dinner table. For special occasions and aesthetic purposes, a cork is more pleasing and romantic. I agree with renowned winemaker Miguel Torres when he says: "We believe there is a value to the glamour and ritual of using a cork." There just isn't much pageantry or drama involved with twisting off a screw top.

And as much of a problem as taint may be, it is contained in a single bottle. Just one mistake in the production of artificial corks and a whole vintage can be wiped out for the entire winery. Further, there are 500,000 people working in the wine-corking industry. The corking process supports their incomes, and as you may not have known, it supports nature, too. Cork forests protect some fairly rare bird life, and they would be cut down for more productive crops if producers stopped using corks.

Ultimately, consumer response will determine the producers' closure of choice. As for me, if I am drinking the wine immediately after I get home from the wine shop, who cares? I'll just put a rag in it. However, if I am aging the wine myself, I want a proven system that will maximize my enjoyment. As corks let in a little air each day, I have serious doubts about there being enough air in a screw cap bottle to ensure proper aging.

And I'll admit it: I want the glamour and tradition of pulling the cork off as well. A periodic offering of tainted wine to the wine gods is worth it to me if I can keep my cork.

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