Screw Cap Closings Gain Momentum
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 13, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
One of the most significant wine trends of recent years has to be the surprisingly quick inroads that alternative closures have made against the traditional tree-bark cork.
As recently as 1999, when I first touched on this topic in a Wine Advisor article, the synthetic (plastic) cork was a novelty, and the notion of putting metal screw caps or beer-style "crown caps" on quality wine was akin to science fiction.
What a difference a few years makes! Spurred by rapidly increasing consumer anger about fine wines spoiled by the musty "taint" that accompanies a significant percentage of tree-bark corks, the industry - particularly in Australia and New Zealand but also in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Europe - is moving with surprising speed toward the wider use of alternatives.
Over the last couple of years, screw caps - particularly the quality Stelvin brand (and a few competitors) whose heavy-duty closure looks a great deal like the foil or plastic "capsule" that shields the usual cork - appear to be overtaking synthetics as the alternative wine closure of choice for many producers.
Despite its bad image in the U.S. as the hallmark of cheap "brown-bag" wines, the screw cap has proved itself beyond any doubt for relatively short-term use on white wines; and scientific evidence is mounting that even hearty reds destined for cellaring will benefit from the screw cap's laboratory-sanitized cleanliness and airtight nature. (Indeed, one of the last remaining, if generally discredited, arguments against the quality screw cap is that it may admit less air into the bottle than cork, possibly resulting in ultra-slow bottle development or undesirable "reductive" aromas in the wine.)
The significant shift from cork to screw cap Down Under has become abundantly clear from recent entries in the Sydney International Wine Competition ("Top 1OO"), says my pal Warren Mason, the Competition's Director. "There was a big increase in their use amongst this year's samples, and their use is no longer restricted to unwooded whites or indeed whites," he said after the competition ended last week. "Their early appearance amongst the reds was noticeable."
Mason estimated a 150 percent increase in screw capped entries this year compared to last, while the year before that there were almost none. Although few screw capped entries came in from the rest of the world, he said New Zealand and Australia - particularly New Zealand - lead the way in adopting the screw cap as the closure of preference.
Specifically, he said, a survey of this year's entries found 30 to 40 percent of Rieslings, Traminers and Pinot Gris under screw cap, as well as 25 to 30 percent of Sauvignon Blancs and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends, 15 to 20 percent of Chardonnays (predominantly unwooded), Viogniers and Semillons, 10 to 15 percent of Pinot Noirs and even a small but significant sample of 3 to 4 percent of Cabernet Sauvignons and 1 to 2 percent Shirazes entered in screw capped bottles.
Coincidentally, it was my impression as a judge, and Mason agrees, that a relatively small number of wines were rejected by the judges this year for being "corked," certainly well below the 5 percent "taint rate" that virtually all serious wine experts consider customary for tree-bark cork.
Among other intriguing screw-cap developments I spotted Down Under, the conventional wisdom that the cost of retooling bottling lines might be prohibitive for smaller producers is being challenged by the emergence of companies that bring portable Stelvin bottling lines around to wineries on a contract basis at bottling time.
Stelvin screw caps have become so commonplace that they no longer attract attention in Aussie or Kiwi restaurants or "cellar door" tasting rooms, although I note with some amusement that a simple "opening ritual" is evolving for the screw cap: Rather than roughly grabbing the twist-off end, the savvy wine waiter will grasp the sleeve of the capsule with one hand while giving the bottle a quick clockwise twist to crack the metal seam with a satisfying click.
And finally, an odd observation that comes up with surprising frequency at Aussie restaurants these days: Leave an open screw capped bottle on the table for more than a few minutes, and someone - a diner or a server - will almost invariably screw the cap back on. Yet hardly anyone ever sticks a tree-bark cork back in the bottle. What's the difference? I have no idea, except perhaps that it's so easy to do.