By Franz Scheurer
Winemakers are tearing their hair out, if they have any hair left that is, unless they are the less violent types and just go quietly grey. Why? Because of the incredibly high number of wines affected by cork taint. Obviously a badly affected wine is rendered undrinkable and that is a waste, but worse, slight taint is not recognised by a lot of people resulting in a verdict of a badly made wine in the eyes (or palates) of the consumer. This of course really hurts the pride of our winemakers who put their soul into their craft and their money on the line. TCA occurs in natural cork due to a lack of an adequate Q&A system in the cork manufacturing industries in Portugal. Lack of hygiene and procedures increases the failure rate of our favourite wine closures. Now this can be fixed but it will need a lot of leaning on the Portuguese and a willingness by the manufacturers to spend some extra money. In the meantime we are left with a lot of spoilt wine.
There is also a perception that Australia, despite paying top dollar, is getting lesser quality cork. I also noticed that some of the top French houses soak their corks in brandy before they use them, an old-fashioned practise said to prevent TCA, which I have not observed anywhere in Australia.
These are the reason that we see a concerted effort to make the synthetic cork better, safer and more affordable and the return of the stelvin cap. Some of the industry’s heavyweights have put their weight behind the stelvin cap. Jeffrey Grosset has just released his famous Polish Hill Riesling with stelvin caps, just to name one. The stelvin cap has been around for quite some time and in tastings of aged white wines it has won hands down over the same wines using cork closures. The industry is far more divided over the merit of stelvin caps with red wines. Brian Croser insists that we need to use cork for red wines to mature properly, whereas Ken Eckersley would happily use stelvin caps for both red and whites. Maturation with stelvin caps might be slower than with cork though, and special equipment is needed at the winery. Synthetic corks have found less of an acceptance as there are still questions about them being 100% food-grade in the long term and the synthetic material’s inability to spring back to the fully uncompressed size after being forced into the neck of a wine bottle (something cork excels at).
A company in Portugal, called AMORIM is working hard on trying to beat TCA. Their internet site is: www.corkfacts.com
Another very interesting site is: www.winetitles.com.au/publications/leske.html
12 papers covering cork supply, cork research, cork taint and consumer responses.
Intrigued by all of this I sent out a questionnaire to many winemakers, sommeliers, food and wine writers and members of the public, to hopefully gain some insights.
Here are the results:
1) The public hates the idea of change. Although they understand that artificial closures might be better than cork they still feel cheated when they are presented with a “good” (spell that expensive) bottle of wine using stelvin caps or synthetic closures. They will accept a young white with a stelvin cap but automatically file it in the “cheap” category.
2) Sommeliers prefer corks in general, as they don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the merit of artificial closures to the patron. A lot of them admit though, that they are happily purchasing good wines with artificial closures for their own cellar!
3) Winemakers seem to be united in wanting to use stelvin caps for whites and some reds. Even synthetic corks get support, although the feeling is that the good ones are pitched at too high a price.
4) Food and wine writers seem to be the most divided group. No clear conclusion could be reached from the answers I received. John Newton probably summed it up best when he said: “From a personal point of view I must say there’s a curious thing with cork and stelvin. I don’t mind a cap on a white wine – but feel cheated with a capped red wine. Why? Purely emotional.”
Personally? Well, I just bought a case of Grosset’s Polish Hill Riesling with stelvin caps and another case of the same wine with cork closures.
I’ll tell you more in 10 years!