What ever happened to corks?

Pulling the cork from a wine bottle the other day, I suddenly realized with surprise that I was actually pulling a cork.

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A real cork, that is. In that “Eureka” moment, I suddenly realized that it had been a long time since I encountered a whole, natural cork, as opposed to a metal screw cap, synthetic (plastic) stopper, or “technical” cork made of reassembled cork granules treated to deter “cork taint.”

Natural cork is still around, all right. Industry surveys like this 2015 report in Wine Economist, using data from a survey by Wine Business Monthly (registration required), suggest that more bottles are stopped by cork than with all the alternative closures combined.

But the gap is shrinking, Wine Economist writer Mike Veseth reports, with cork usage down from 70 percent to 50 percent of wineries, while screw cap use has increased from about 10% to 30%, technical cork is up from about 20% to 30%, and synthetic closures are roughly stable at about 10%. (The numbers add up to more than 100% because many wineries use more than one closure for different wines, often reserving carefully selected natural cork for the most high-end products where the cork tradition remains strong.)

 "Natural Cork is #1. So are Synthetic Closures. Discuss."

“Natural Cork is #1. So are Synthetic Closures. Discuss.”

Confusing the issue further, Veseth points out, “Natural Cork is #1. So are Synthetic Closures. Discuss.” How’s that? Simple: “The devil is in the details. … The unit of analysis for the [Wine Business Monthly] survey is the winery, whether it is big or small, which changes up the conclusions you might otherwise draw. Many more wineries use natural cork, but many more bottles of wine here in the U.S. are sealed by synthetic closures.” The 10 percent of wineries that use synthetics include such giants as Gallo. So, “about half of all wine bottled in the U.S. comes with a synthetic closure even though only about 10% of wineries surveyed use it.”

Perhaps I’m not seeing as many natural corks as in the past because I don’t buy much expensive wine? Could be, but I’d guess that the wines I usually report here are about equally divided between screw cap and technical corks like DIAM, with much smaller incidence of either plastic stoppers or … natural cork.

We’ve come a long way since the early years of the Wine Advisor, when on Nov. 1, 1999, almost 18 years ago, I wrote a then-edgy piece, “Farewell to the cork?” in which I talked about screw caps, synthetics, and even beer bottle-style caps as rarities that might, someday, gain market share in the fight against cork taint. The passage of time makes me look like quite a prophet now. I only wish I were that good in my stock-market picks.

I’d love to know what you think! Drop by our WineLovers Discussion Group forum (WLDG) or our WineLovers Facebook Page and let us know whether you’re seeing less natural cork, and how you feel about that. We’ll welcome your opinions, whatever they are.

Wine Focus: South Africa

We’re discussing South African wines in our WineLovers Discussion Group forum this month in Wine Focus for June 2017: South Africa.

Please feel free to drop by the forum with your tasting notes, comments and questions about South African wine. If you’re a Facebook user, you can join our forum with a single click: All you need to do is visit the forum and click the “Social Login” link at upper right. For another blast from the past, here’s another early Wine Advisor article, Rediscovering South Africa (Sept. 13, 1999), in which I took a look at South African wines while the country’s wine industry was still recovering from its apartheid policies and a long international boycott.

Eighteen years later, South Africa has come a long way. The Mulderbosch 2015 Coastal Region Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé that I reported in last week’s Wine Advisor was very good indeed. Now, the Spice Route 2013 “Chakalaka” Western Cape Red that resided under that natural cork turned out to be a very fine table wine, too. You’ll find my tasting report below.


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Today’s Tasting Report

Spice Route 2013 “Chakalaka” Western Cape Red ($20.99)

Spice Route "Chakalaka"Dark reddish-purple, almost black at the core, with bright ruby glints against the light. Delicious scents of black plums, blackberries and raspberries add just a subtle hint of warm spice in the aroma. Ripe, juicy plums dominate an appetizing flavor shaped by food-friendly acidity and a significant edge of soft but perceptible tannins, with a bit of heat showing from its 14.5% alcohol. Mixed berries and a fresh, citric snap linger in a very long finish. A blend of 50% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, 13% Petite Sirah, 8% Carignan, 8% Grenache, and 6% Tannat. U.S. importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala. (June 1, 2017)

FOOD MATCH: This wine would go well with just about any red-meat variation or cheese-based dishes. We went the cheese route and were very satisfied with its afflinity for creamy burrata cheese mixed with a spicy, chunky quick Italian-style tomato sauce over linguine.

WHEN TO DRINK: It’s good now, despite the tannins, but would likely reward two or three years in a good cellar; beyond that, its potential for long-term cellaring is anybody’s guess.

My $21 local retail price tag is a bit above the $18 U.S. average on Wine-Searcher.com, but it’s good enough that I’d somewhat grudgingly pay that price again.

Neither the Spice Route winery website or the website of importer Vineyard Brands offers any information about the Chakalaka red, but the winery site is an attractive destination with good photos of the winery and vineyards and information about its history and terroir.

Check prices and find vendors for Spice Route “Chakalaka” Western Cape red on Wine-Searcher.com.


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