The Lowdown on Screwcaps

Richard Fadeley Is it trendy or tacky? Cheap or chic? Heretical or avant-garde? We're talking about cork versus screw caps for finishing a bottle of wine. Many people have the misconception that the screw cap closer is an economic decision by the winemaker to cut corners, and it's often associated with lower end wines. Years ago that was the case and screw caps have been around a long time, first used in 1889 to seal whiskey bottles.

But we are fighting a different creature with screwcap closures now. Have you ever had a wine that just didn't seem right, not quite as fresh or fruity, maybe even a little musty or off putting? You were probably dealing with a "corked" bottle of wine, or a wine that was contaminated with 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA) from a contaminated cork - TCA can taint about 5% to 8% of cork-closed wines. You may have noticed plastic rubbery corks that are the devil to get off your corkscrew, or conglomerate corks that are made like processed meat from God knows what. These are all an attempt to deal with "cork taint" or TCA.

But the emerging alternative of choice seems to be a modern version of the old metal screw cap, including Stelvin and other brands. It comes in several different styles and can even be used on sparkling wines. These are all attempts to solve the "corked" problem but there is the little problem of consumer prejudice and tradition getting in the way.

While screwcaps will eliminate potential TCA problems they still come with some baggage of their own. There is a small rate of contamination possible from sulfuric aromas caused by a chemical process called "reduction" in the bottle; but given a few minutes this will usually "blow off." You should never evaluate a wines until you given it at least 15-20 minutes to settle down a little and "breathe". Never be too hasty in a restaurant to send a bottle back. You might let the server know that there may be a problem, but be willing to give the wine a chance. Most of the time you will be rewarded with a very nice wine, but if you are dealing with a TCA problem you will know it soon enough and they should graciously replace your bottle.

So how is the effort going? I would have thought that more than 10% of wines would be closed with alternatives by now, but that is not the case. There seems to be a problem with consumer resistance and a "wall of tradition" to deal with but there are a few frontiers out there. New Zealand is the most progressive wine producing country with 80% or more of their wineries committed to screwcaps. We tasted one for this review that showed really well. There is spotty usage elsewhere as you have probably noticed. But all over the world there are a few pioneers that are taking the plunge, tired of dealing with complaints about "corked" wine.

Notable are such high-end producers like Plumpjack in Oakville, Calif. (Napa Valley) that has been bottling their high-end Reserve in both screwcap and cork since the '97 vintage. Their manager, John Conover, is convinced that there is no difference except the absence of cork taint in the screwcaps. Well known Oregon producer Benton-Lane has gone 100% to screwcaps and their winemaker Tim Wilson says "I feel strongly about this! ... I can't tell you how disappointing it is to open something you have made, and find that it is not what you intended."

Perhaps the biggest statement being made right now is the Bordeaux 2nd growth Chateau Pichon Baron that just announced that they will bottle 1,000 cases of their second label wine - Tourelles de Longueville - in screwcaps for shipment to Britain starting with the '04 vintage. These are serious winemakers making world-class wines that are taking the first step towards solving the TCA problem.

We tasted a few screwcap wines for this article and have recommended some of the more interesting ones. Bottom line? Don't shy away from screwcaps. They are an attempt by the industry to improve quality and your acceptance will speed that effort.

This by no means spells the end of cork. You will always see cork for most high-end whites and reds, but 50% or more wines from all levels will probably gravitate to screwcaps. And remember, this is not a move to cheapen the wine but to preserve the wine and eliminate the problem with TCA contamination. Every time you enjoy that popping cork you are rolling the dice that you will be in that lucky 95% and I sincerely hope that you will be. A v˘tre santÚ!

Let us know your impressions of alternate closures. Send E-mail to webwineman@hotmail.com. We enjoy hearing from you.

Free Times Screwcap Wine Review

RECOMMENDED WHITES
Benton Lane '04 Pinot Gris *** Our Top White! Oregon $11
Zed '05 Sauvignon Blanc *** Tied for Best Wine! New Zealand $11.99
Chateau Bonnet '05 Entre de Mer *** Another Star! France $11.99
Les Fumees Blanches, '04 SB *** A Best Buy! France $8.99
Screw Kappa Napa '04 Chardonnay *** Good Cal Chard! California $13.99
Ferrari-Carano '05 Sauvignon Blanc ** High-end Producer! California $14.99

RECOMMENDED REDS
St. Martin '05 Merlot Vin de Pays *** A Best Buy! France $7.99
Caleo '05 Nero d'Avala *** Personal Favorite! Italy $8.99
Screw Kappa Napa '04 Cabernet *** Serve with grilled meat! California $13.99
Big House Red '04 *** From Bonny Doon California $12.99
Screw Kappa Napa '04 Merlot *** "Big Time Wine" California $13.99
Per me sola '05 Rosso Toscana *** Good Value Here Italy $7.99

Our four-star rating system and how it might compare to the Wine Spectator 100-point scale:
* Good (80-84)
** Very Good (85-88)
*** Very Good/Excellent (88-90)
**** Excellent (91+)

February 2007

To contact Richard Fadeley, write him at webwineman@hotmail.com

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