Score One for the Plastic Cork
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed June 10, 2002. For more information go to wineloverspage.com.
You may recall a flurry of publicity about fine wines closed with metal screw caps last month, including our May 15 article "Two more U.S. wineries embrace the screw cap," which was later picked up by the general news media.
Today let's take another look at a different alternative to natural cork: The artificial cork, a wine stopper that looks and acts like a cork but is made of plastic or similar synthetic material.
Perhaps a bit less jarring to traditionalists than the screw cap, which has an image problem to overcome because of its long association with cheap wine, synthetic corks have gained popularity over the past decade. Many are fashioned of a cork-color material intended to resemble a "real" cork. A few, however, flaunt their difference with bright colors never found in nature.
Why choose synthetics? The motive behind the wine industry's search for an alternative to natural cork is simple: A finite percentage of natural corks are "tainted" with a compound that can fatally afflict wine with an unpleasant musty scent, reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement. Metal screwcaps and synthetic corks don't have this problem.
But we've had the natural cork around for 300 years, and many people consider it an important part of the romance and tradition of fine wine. To outweigh this heritage, any alternative will have to prove itself thoroughly.
In this trial-by-use, one of the strongest arguments made against synthetics is that they are too new for us to KNOW whether they can keep wine effectively for many years, without either admitting air that can spoil the wine or leaching adulterating elements from the "cork" into the wine. Most experts pooh-pooh the latter concern, as the commercial synthetics in current use are inert. But as for the aging question, only time will tell.
A recent tasting here, however, offers anecdotal support of the synthetic model. In cleaning out a little-used nook, I found a forgotten bottle of an Oregon wine not really meant for keeping. The Argyle 1994 Willamette Valley Oregon Pinot Noir had been sitting in a corner gathering dust for seven years or so, not at proper cellar temperature but through a series of Ohio Valley summers in which even air conditioning can't always keep room temperature below 80F.
Was it still good? Let's see...I wiped the bottle, peeled the capsule, and guess what? This wine was stoppered with a synthetic and I recalled that Argyle, which recently made news with its decision to use screw caps on some wines, was also one of the first wineries to try synthetics.
Out came the cork. Although the wine's ruby color was slightly hazy, it was youthfully clear at the edge, with absolutely no sign of browning. Intriguing and complex flavors began with a whiff of damp (but clean) laundry that quickly gave way to ripe red fruits and a distinct mineral character that seemed quite Burgundian. Fruit flavors were fresh, too, ripe black cherries and zippy lemon squirt acidity in balance, with a pleasant underlying earthiness.
Complex and interesting, it was surprisingly youthful, bearing its years with remarkable grace. Chalk up one small but significant victory for the artificial cork.
For more online reading about synthetics, you might enjoy a visit to Neocork one of the top synthetic producers. And check out the Argyle Winery.