To screw, or not to screw

The subject of Screwcap closures for wine-bottles instead of Corks continues as a perennial topic in the columns of wine-journalists all over the world. Your correspondent Lovat Stephen feels the time must come soon when some agreement will be reached between the competing views.

Or will it? The trouble is that there is an inevitable continuing conflict between economics and aesthetics. Screwcaps (or Stelvin closures as they are generally known in Australia and New Zealand) are clearly seen as cheaper than old-fashioned corks. Even plastic artificial closures now used in many supermarket wines are preferred for being cheaper than genuine cork. But will either of these possible alternatives ever be good enough to use for vintage wines and champagne? And which closure is the best for all wines?

One cannot help feel that the fierce arguments going on in the press are often a result of hefty lobbying by interested parties - be these the wine-producers and bottlers, and their marketing men - or perhaps by consumers themselves.

What, indeed, are the issues. Basically they mainly concern the matter of so-called 'corked' or tainted wine. That is, wine which has been allowed to be contaminated by TCA: 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole which produces that very unpleasant mouldy smell in a bottle known by the French as bouchonné. Depending which side you are on, this "corked" wine can occur as often as one bottle in every case to a figure more like one bottle in forty. Even the latter proportion strikes Lovat Stephen as extremely high, and he wonders whether the statistics for pronouncing a wine as "corked" aren't often a result of gamesmanship invoked by someone showing off his wine-upmanship.

A second issue is whether the use of good cork in better wines designed for laying down is wholly justified? The screwtop lobby accepts that their kind of closure may not really suit all vintage wines and things like Port which are known to go on improving in the bottle. The aesthetic side is another factor.

That explosive 'pop' when opening a bottle of champagne or other fine wine is more than just a traditional sound and habit. It is partly a signal that the bottle being opened has had all the necessary expensive attention that it deserves, and comes to your table in the condition the producer intended.

The level of argument between the two opposing views is not always as polite and civilised as any topic in wine deserves. Those advocating screwcaps portray their opponents as backwoodsmen from the Old World, too ready to resist any change, especially something taking advantage of new technology.

They point out that screwcaps began being developed and tried more than 30 years ago - in the 1970's - and that modern seal-tight stoppers guarantee that a wine cannot be contaminated by TCA. In the New World, Australia may still lag behind the most active proponent of the screwcap which is New Zealand.

But even four years ago a consortium of 14 wineries in the Clare Valley in South Australia, the wine area of Australia, decided to bottle some or all of their Rieslings with screwcaps. The talk then was of the picnic and barbecue convenience of being able to just twist a metal cap and pour, with the unkindest cut of all a suggestion that a cork is merely useful for hanging on a piece of string from a stockman's hat to keep flies away in the Outback.

There is indeed a good deal of media manipulation involved - both ways. The pro-screwcappers claim that British drinkers are increasingly accepting the Stelvin closures, and the battle has already been won. And that the only decisions now are as to when the screwcap is best introduced all round.

Opponents of the screwcap say it is nowhere near the "done deal" claimed by one interested party at the first International Screwcap Symposium held at Blenheim in New Zealand. They say that improved methods of treating cork are continually being introduced, and that scare headlines such as "Cork Gets The Boot" are neither true nor of any use helping the consumer to decide.

Although there might be a case for capping, say, unwooded Semillon and many a short-lived Riesling, as well as early-drinking reds, any wine which improves with bottle-age and deserves careful storage needs a cork stopper. As for the convenience of screwcaps, well, this is fine for the park-bench and back-alley type of consumers they are presumably intended for.

Just to complicate matters, there are now synthetic plastic enclosures which are not true corks (and sometimes, let's face it very difficult to extract) which might be a compromise. As might be the inclusion of a silicon disk on the bottom of a cork, to keep contamination at bay but still let the wine breathe.

Other opponents of the screwcap point out that bottle-age takes longer to develop under a screwcap, and that wines often taste tinny and flat if allowed to be in contact with metal. Indeed will a whole new genre of wine-writing be needed to take account of the different flavours which might result from wine nestling up against a metal closure . A good aluminium vintage?

Supermarkets may have to insist that their wines on display all stand up to avoid any new kind of metallic contamination. After all, most home and even wine-merchant racks are built to accommodate wines lying on their side. Recently I encountered a wine whose back-label actually carried words to the effect that the bottle must stand upright, and so the front display bottles did. But behind it were further bottles of the same kind lying on their sides.

Wine consultant Angela Reddin in a letter published in the OLN magazine noted that if the screwcap has not been moulded correctly to the glass screw wine can leak out - and if wine can get out, oxygen can get in. She also gives an excellent recipe for opening a screwcap: "Put your hand around the whole of the capsule and turn. That way you exert a tensile load on the seal which forces the two parts to move away from each other cleanly. If you just turn the top part of the capsule, you exert a shear load, which rips the seal in opposite directions, leaving nasty little jagged bits sticking out."

So much for those who complain about the complication and unnecessary ritual in using the host of different corkscrew systems for removing a cork.

A final warning note which your Correspondent cannot help introducing concerns all propaganda which sees the need to reduce "consumer resistance" to the screwcap closure. Is Lovat Stephen's instinct of those, who like himself always buys and pays for all the wine he drinks at home, perhaps friendlier to the old-fashioned cork than any jagged-edged sticking out bit of metal? In fact, perhaps the Customer might be allowed to be right - just this once?

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