TCS Daily

The Turn of the Screw

By Stephen Bainbridge - December 12, 2005 12:00 AM

A friend recently gave me a bottle of Chapoutier's 1999 La Bernardine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I was very much looking forward to trying this wine, which had received high 80s scores from both Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. I rarely drink Rhone wines, so I was eagerly anticipating comparing this wine to the California Rhone Rangers and Australian Shirazes with which I am more familiar. Unfortunately, this bottle was corked to the point of being undrinkable, so it went down the drain.

I like old things. Old ideas. Old books. Old wines. I guess that's part of the reason I'm a conservative. Yet, the intelligent conservative combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform. And so we come to the question of closures for wine.

For generations our ancestors used cork to close wine bottles, and they were wise to do so. Indeed, cork is a nearly perfect closure for wine. It is mostly impermeable, yet apparently allows just enough minute amounts of air into the bottle for the wine to evolve with age. And cork lends a certain romance to the otherwise mundane process of opening a bottle, as anyone who has popped a champagne cork knows. (For real romance, of course, port tongs can't be beat.)

Yet, sometimes change is necessary. And when it comes to wine closures, change has no greater advocate than the Wine Spectator's James Laube, who recently observed:

"... there are days when 15 percent of the wines we taste in our Napa office are flawed and undrinkable, the result of bad corks. ...

"Most wine drinkers are aware of the hassles caused by corks. Those who say they've never tasted a "corky," or spoiled, wine are undoubtedly mistaken. They just didn't know it, perhaps because they're not sensitive to the taint. Those who haven't lost a good, old, cellared bottle to a crumbled cork, well, that too is hard to imagine. I can only say their time is coming."

Crumbling corks are a hassle, but one that is easily dealt with by decanting the wine through an unbleached coffee filter. Wines with bits of cork floating in them, however, are not what wine geeks mean when they talk about corked wines.

Instead, as Laube explained, a corked wine is one "tainted by 2,4,6 trichloranisole (aka TCA)," which ruins "otherwise fine wines by imparting a musty character" to the wine's aroma and flavors.

I've come to believe that Laube is hyper-sensitive to TCA taint. His estimate that 15% of wine bottles are tainted is way too high in my experience. Yet, one does encounter enough corked wines to think experimenting with alternative closures is highly worthwhile.

So what's the answer? I hate to say it, but I am persuaded that the answer is the Stelvin screw cap.

To be sure, a lot of high-end California wineries have switched to synthetic corks. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that wines sealed with synthetic corks tend to oxidize after only about two years in bottle. Consider these informed remarks:

  • "We look at synthetic cork for a wine that's consumed within five years or less," says Ernie Farinias, winemaker and cellar master at the University of California, Davis. "Usually, for wines that are destined to age for more than five years, natural cork is used." (Forbes)  
  • "Wine bottled in the synthetic closures was the most oxidized after 30 months, having excessive aged character and lowest fruit." (Hogue)
  • "We are not big believers in the long term aging potential for wines that use a synthetic cork. Many wineries that have used these synthetic closures for more than 5 years are finding that they can start to impart a synthetic taste into the wines. Certainly our own inhouse trials on a chardonnay bottling three years ago reflected that." (Tinhorn Creek)
  • "Synthetic cork permits a faster rate of oxygen transmission into the bottle than real cork, and can age a wine too quickly. It is therefore recommended for wines that are to be consumed within 24 months." (Supermarket Guru)
  • "Wine tends to age faster because of a loss of sulfur dioxide -- the anti-oxidant used in all wine. In this respect synthetic corks are thought to be less appropriate for wines that will be aged for several years. Early examples, including Argyl Riesling from Oregon oxidized very quickly; today the problem is less significant, but few producers would use synthetic stoppers for wines to be cellared for 5 years or more. However, most wines are drunk within days of their purchase and 2 years of the harvest, so this is not a major concern. Also, manufacturers claim that current efforts maintain freshness more effectively than the ones that have performed poorly in tests in the past." (Corkwatch)

If I may be indulged a personal note, I'm particularly concerned about Behrens & Hitchcock, which uses solely synthetics, and in whose wines I've invested quite heavily. Their wines tend to huge, with obvious aging potential. A recent tasting of B&H's 1998 Napa Valley Merlot was very reassuring, as the wine was developing just fine, but I still worry that their wines will go south too quickly because they've chosen a lousy closure.

Many fine California and Australia wineries are now experimenting with the Stelvin closure. In my experience, wines capped with screw tops taste just as good as those closed with corks and, of course, loads better than those closed with tainted corks. But will wines capped with screw tops age as well? According to the Spectator, Bordeaux and Burgundy wineries are starting to conclude that they can:

"Burgundy n├ęgociant Jean-Claude Boisset is releasing small amounts of several bottles from the 2003 vintage topped with screw caps, including premier cru Santenay Grand Clos Rousseau, Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin Villages. ... "We feel fairly confident after the research we've done that the Stelvin will work nicely," said Jean-Charles Boisset, the founder's son. Boisset said the decision to test the Stelvin was sparked by a tasting of a 1966 Mercurey that was closed by screw cap...."

So the next time you see a $20 bottle of wine topped by a screw cap, don't assume you're being ripped off. As Laube opined:

"I've long advocated twist-offs, and when I'm shopping I've found myself gravitating toward them. One reason is that I'm assured the wine won't be corked. Another is that I want to taste how fresh the wine is. I also want to support those who are taking an important leadership role for the industry and consumers."

Me too.

Steve Bainbridge is a professor of law at UCLA. His blog is a popular law and politics blog, while his wine blog offers wine reviews and commentary.


good article

The third paragraph seems to imply that a little air getting into the bottle is a good thing. Not true. Bottle aging is a reductive process. Oxygen bad.

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