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There are many polarizing topics in the wine industry – the three-tier distribution system, indigenous vs. designer yeasts, new vs. old world, and of course real cork vs. crappy synthetic cork vs. screw top closures.

One notable trend here in Virginia is the growing use of screw top closures.  As of right now, I believe there are just two Virginia wineries that use screw top closures for all of their wines – Blenheim Vineyards and Tarara Winery – but there are several other wineries, like Lovingston Winery, moving in that direction.

I don’t much care for the term screw top (or screw cap) – instead I prefer the term ‘rotating closure.’  I first heard the term ‘rotating closure’ from someone at Keswick Vineyards, but I’ve now assumed full credit as the originator of the term.

I have had the ‘traditional cork vs. rotating closure‘ discussion with a number of winemakers, and the most often cited reason for the use of rotating closures is the fact that wines with screw cap closures are not susceptible to cork taint.   Although I have not found an absolute, definitive source for the percentage of wines that are corked, a number consistently thrown around is 3% – 5%.  This is Bovine Excrement!  As an avid opener of wine bottles, my personal experience is no more than 1% of the wine bottles with traditional cork closures that I open are corked.

Though this post began as a rant against the use of screw top closures for red wine, it has morphed in to multi-part series to address both sides of this topic.  In part I of this two part series, I present the opinions of several respected winemakers who are using screw top closures.  Part II in this series will provide my opinions and those of winemakers who prefer traditional cork closures.

My opinions on this subject are simple – I like cork. I don’t like rotating closures. I prefer my red wines sealed with a cork closure.  Cork closures represent a long-held tradition that I like, and there is something romantic to the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle of wine.  I personally do not feel there is enough real research (i.e. – aging) to opine on the ability of screw top closures to really allow a wine to age gracefully.

In today’s post – the case for screw top closures – I’ve asked three Virginia wineries that are ahead of the screw top trend to weigh in on this subject: Kirsty from Blenheim Vineyards, Jordan from Tarara Winery, and Stephanie from Lovingston Winery.

Since Blenheim Vineyards is just one of two Virginia wineries that uses screw top closures for all of their wines, I asked winemaker Kirsty Harmon to share her thoughts on why she uses all screw top closures:

At Blenheim we use screw cap closures because of consistency and quality. Screwcap closures deliver the wine in a more consistent manner. The fact that screw caps are usually cheaper than corks ($0.18-$0.25), look cool, and are easier to open is bonuses.

I feel that wines are delivered to consumers more reliably and consistently when screw cap closures are used. Since corks are natural objects, each and every cork is different and will let an unpredictable and different amount of oxygen pass through it into the wine. Even though it might not be obvious at first, as the wines age, each bottle will become more and more different and not necessarily taste like what the winemaker intended. As most winemakers will agree, we are perfectionists and all work hard to get the wine to a point we are happy with – it seems kind of crazy to me that it is the cork that will ultimately dictate what a wine tastes like.

Corks can also harbor a compound called TCA (2,4,6 -Trichloroanisole) that can make the wine taste musty and moldy. There is no way to predict which corks have this problem and there is no way to totally avoid the problem if corks are used. While using good corks and reliable suppliers can minimize the occurrence of TCA, there is still a chance that this problem will exist.

I use screw caps on both red and white wines. All of the good things that happen during aging, like softening of tannins happen without oxygen. While the wines at Blenheim are made to be drank young, I would still use screw caps if I were going to let the wine age for a while. When I was in New Zealand, I met with numerous winemakers who were all eager to show me comparison tastings of the same wine from the same vintage bottled with either cork or screw cap. Each and every time, the wine bottled using screw caps was brighter, tasted cleaner, and a better expression of the fruit. The wines bottled with cork were tired, dull and overall less interesting. The comparison favored screw caps on everything from Riesling, to Chardonnay and Pinot noir. It was a pretty dramatic difference, and one that convinced me without a doubt to stay away from corks.

I don’t think that screw caps will be the best solution to close wine bottles in the future, but for me, they are the best solution right now.

Blenheim Vineyards
31 Blenheim Farm
Charlottesville, Virginia 22902

Although I do agree with Kirsty that screw caps will not be the last solution, I do disagree with her that these annoying little closures look cool.  I personally do not like the look of rotating closures (just one mans opinions).  I would certainly like to participate in a comparative tasting of cork vs. screw cap to ‘experience’ the difference between the two.

Last weekend, I visited Tarara Winery along with Paul and Warren from Virginia Wine Time, and the use of screw top closures was a topic of much discussion.  Jordan has made a number of wine-related changes at Tarara, one of which was converting to 100% screw top closures for all wines.

The fact is that every closure has issues and benefits.  I prefer Screw tops because their issues can be dealt with in the cellar.  I know when I bottle with screw tops that it will create a very anaerobic environment which if not careful can create reductive characters similar to Hydrogen Sulfite.  That is created by a lack of oxygen, which will create the sulfites in a wine to reduce down as opposed to bind in the simplest terms.  Reduced sulfites smell bad.  So, here at Tarara the actions we take are simple – we have a more oxidative wine making style with multiple rackings of our big reds and mostly barrel ferments on our whites.  This helps to climatize and bind any unstable sulfites in the wine prior to bottling so they have less risk of reducing.  We also simply don’t add as much sulfites to our wines and try to stay away from any later additions close to bottling.

I can talk about the advantages and disadvantages all day to almost any closure, but for our wines that have heavy extraction on the reds and bigger style whites I prefer screw tops.  Most of the wines I have encountered issues with are varietals like Sauvignon Blanc after a year or two because most of the winemaking is very anaerobic.

I don’t thing there is a problem with using any closure for the right wine.  I think Synthetic corks, Zorks, or Tetra Packs are great for a wine that is meant to be consumed young (like less then 2 years, less then 1 for tetra pack).  Since 95% of all wine is consumed inside 24 hours of purchase, these closures tend to make a lot of sense.  I do like to think that our wines will age gracefully (many of them anyway) and that is why I use screw tops.  If the elevage is correctly done (ours is also quite long before bottling) then you should be safe and the wine will age very well.  They will age differently however, but as I said on Saturday, any two wines with cork will age differently.  There is no consistency.  I do also like a lot of the glass closures, but they are hard to open for some, expensive and you require a staff person from their company to be here for the first couple bottlings to ensure they are placed properly.

As far as other pieces that come into play, including – price, ease of opening, process, it is all over the board.  Screw tops are more expensive then synthetics, Zorks, but cheaper than high quality 49mm corks with custom tin caps.  Here is the average pricing for what you will see to close a bottle:

  • Synthetic Corks $0.05-$0.10 each
  • Zorks $0.25 each – largely dependent on volume and incredibly labor intensive to place
  • PVC Capsules – $0.02-$0.05 each
  • Tin Capsules – $0.12-$0.20 each
  • Traditional Corks – $0.20 – $1.00 depending on size and sorting procedures.  Buying corks is actually quite complicated, but it is all for aesthetics and has nothing to do with TCA risks.
  • Screw-Tops – $0.35-$0.45
  • Agglomerate Corks – $0.05 each or so with huge TCA issues. – Note: Diam corks look like Agglomerate corks but are apparently TCA free, I haven’t done too much work with them.

A cool thing that we have noticed as a cost savings is that our labor per bottle is about 20 seconds less for opening.  Might not seem like much but the value at the end of the year is a few thousand dollars.

Tarara Winery
13648 Tarara Lane
Leesburg, VA 20176-5236

Lovingston Winery is one of the Virginia wineries using screw top closures for just their white wines as of right now, but will soon include reds as well.  I recently had the chance to catchup with Stephanie Wright, one of the proprietors of Lovingston to solicit her thoughts on the use of screw top closures and why their winery is expanding the use of the closures to their red wines.

We currently use screw caps for all white wines – our Wahoo White, Seyval Blanc (currently waiting for our new vines to give us a harvest), and Petit Manseng.  We don’t use them for reds as yet, but we’re producing a red this March that will use them.

We have several reasons for using screw tops. First, the way we make our whites – all stainless, with occasionally some residual sugar, and very refreshing – makes screw tops a no-brainer.  We want the freshness to remain as long as possible on our wines, and do not really want them to change at all in the first year we’re trying to sell them/consume them.  In fact, on our Seyval and the Wahoo White, we have captured a little CO2 at bottling on purpose for that slight textural, fizzy quality, and the screw cap maintains that aspect quite well.

Second, the price aspect is huge; especially since we use the highest quality corks possible and tin capsules in our reds.  The price difference of those two items vs. a single screw top is significant, and one of the reasons we’re trying screw caps out on one of our new reds being released in early 2011.  This new red is going to have a small amount of residual sugar and be quite fruity as well as retail for somewhere around the $10 range.  Using a traditional cork closure for this wine does not make sense for this wine since this wine will not be for aging.

Third, screw tops are gaining ground in popularity with people in the restaurant industry.  I have discussed it quite a bit with wait staff in the past few months during random conversations, and they love the simple twist off of a bottle rather than having to go through the show with uncorking a bottle tableside.  And if you’re a bartender in a crowded bar/restaurant, and someone orders a glass of wine, it takes a lot less time and effort to unscrew and re-screw that bottle than it does with a cork.

As far as quality control, we had an instance in our first year of bottling where we bought two different levels of corks – the top end and the second tier – one for our higher end reds and one for our more mainstream, less expensive ones.  We had major issues with the second tier cork…they were too dry at bottling (although the cork company denied that) and would either snap in two halfway out of the bottle or they never made it into the bottle in the first place and we discovered several cases worth of uncorked, yet encapsulated, wines.  No fun.  From that point on, we have only used the top tier corks for safety’s sake.  Thus, when it comes to price differences in using all cork or some screw top, especially for a $10 wine, we can save money without sacrificing quality.  We have yet to have any issue with our screw tops.

Lovingston Winery
85 Freshwater Cove Lane
Lovingston, VA 22949

Stephanie makes a great point for screw tops in terms of ease of use in a restaurant.  This is a biggie to consider for those wineries interested in more restaurant business.  I wonder if restaurants consider rotating closures a benefit? (I’ll leave this to other peeps looking for content ideas.)

Although I have a great deal of respect for both Kirsty at Blenheim, and Jordan at Tarara, I do question their decision to use screw tops for 100% of their wines – especially reds.  I will certainly keep buying wines from both wineries, but I’m not on board with the use of screw tops for red wines (yet).  Perhaps we can convince Stephanie at Lovingston to bottle this new red in screw top and cork for an interesting comparative tasting. ;)

I would like to thank Stephanie from Lovingston, Kirsty from Bleheim and Jordan from Tarara for providing their thoughts and opinions on this subject.  The next post in this series will provide my opinions and those of winemakers who prefer traditional cork closures.

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