Screw Tops: Friend or Enemy of Wine?
For centuries, cork has long been considered the premier stopper of wine. The issue of cork taint stirred up the enclosure market and spurred many wine producers to find alternative solutions. One alternative, the screw top, which had previously been used for inexpensive and ordinary wines, found favor among a few New World wine regions. Nowadays, quality wines from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, etc., are using screw tops for their everyday and fine wines. Here in Virginia, Tarara Winery and Blenheim Vineyards are the first wine producers to move their entire wine portfolio to a screw top enclosure system. While the cork industry has identified the cause of cork taint and advanced its manufacturing process, screw tops are here to stay. That said, some wine consumers are still uncertain about wines with a screw top enclosure. For that reason, I have asked Jordan Harris, General Manager and winegrower at Tarara Winery, to demystify screw tops for us.
Jordan Harris of Tarara Winery
Screw Tops: Friend or Enemy of Wine?
I find great advantages in being a professional in an industry that honors hard-working traditions while being of a younger generation with the potential to offer fresh perspective. Speculation concerning alternative enclosures is one of the most talked about issues facing the industry today, and the decisions being made are pivotal to the quality and innovation within our region. In response to increased proclivity to seal bottles with screw tops, winemakers often receive the same five dissenting arguments:
- Corks have been a tradition for hundreds of years.
- Corks and opening the wine are the most romantic parts of the experience.
- Consumers are not willing to pay for wines in screw tops.
- Wines closed with screw tops do not age as well.
- Wines closed with screw tops have “reductive” issues.
Cork or Cap?
This odorous flaw in the wine is created by a chemical called TCA (2-4-6 Trichloroanisole) which can be found technically on anything that contains phenols (i.e., woods, plastics, grape skins and, thus, wine) when it comes in contact with certain sterilizing agents and mold. Tricholoanisole is incredibly potent. Studies show that the average person can detect TCA at a level of 4 parts per trillion in wines. Some critics have proven able to sense TCA at levels hovering around 1 ppt; this trace amount is the equivalent to approximately one sugar cube in 100 Olympic size swimming pools! While TCA is completely harmless to human beings, it has detrimental effect to the aroma and flavor of the wine; in many instances it has ruined entire vintages of a wine. The problem corks lend to this issue is that they create an inconsistency, an unknown variable once the wine is bottled. Imagine how different the world would be today if accepting a 5-7% failure rate were the norm.
The romantic rush of uncorking a bottle is hardly an argument for sacrificing the integrity of what rests inside; most of the time this process works out to be quite the opposite. How many times have we set to open a bottle of wine just to have the cork snap in half? We blush because this ‘never’ happens to anyone in the industry and look silly as we relentlessly attempt to dig that last 1/8 of an inch of cork. Finally, we end up pushing it into the bottle and surrendering ourselves to a glass riddled with spongy floaters. Then there is the instance of strong-arming the cork out of the bottle, pulling so hard a splash of your favorite Syrah tie dyes your date’s new white shirt. It could happen to any of…and probably has. This could be avoided by using one of these new space-age corkscrews with more arms and gears than there are grape varietals, but your date is gone before you figure out the mechanics. Now it is your 25th Anniversary, and you have chosen the last bottle of a special vintage from your cellar. Assuming you get so far as to pour the nectar unscathed, your toast is burned by the realization that your celebration smells like moldy newspaper! The sad state of affairs in which you could find yourself is hardly traditional or romantic.
Tarara's Beautiful Shadow Lake
A consumer’s unwillingness to pay for wines under screw top, particularly for ultra premium wines has never been substantiated. Many people in the wine industry have under-estimated our wine buying public. Currently, our best-selling wine is also the first screw top to be released. It is a red blend (the current vintage is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) that retails for $25 per bottle. This is only the first of the Tarara lineup to be closed with screw tops; we will be 100% screw top within a year as the 2007 reds and 2008 whites are released. In many areas of the world screw tops are now considered the norm. Australia and New Zealand close 85% of their wines with screw tops, including high-end reds and whites exceeding $100 per bottle. There are now Grand Cru Burgundies, top Loire Valley and producers in northeast Italy (Veneto) using screw tops. These and other wineries realize that the consumer wants a great bottle of wine, and if the odds are better using a screw top, then the practice is worthwhile for most. One may argue if the best part of a bottle of wine is opening it, then it is a bad bottle of wine.
Many industry professionals insist that wines do not age well in screw tops, and that they have not been tested to have shown being successful aging. These closures are no longer new, and there are many examples of wines from the United States, Australia and New Zealand that have been aging gracefully under these screw tops for well over 15 years. To some, these wines are better developed than their cork-stopped counterparts. They gain lovely tertiary characters that are normal during the aging process while retaining their freshness and lively fruit characteristics creating a wine of better complexity and balance. Are they identical to wine with a cork? No, but after 10-15 years no two wines with corks are going to be identical either. Each bottle will age slightly differently under a cork; there is very little consistency. Screw tops result in more consistency bottle to bottle, even after extended aging. At Tarara Winery, we craft wines that we believe will age gracefully for well over a decade. Some bottles from our first vintage in 1989 are drinking beautifully today. We think that using screw tops is just one more step to ensuring that our wines will be fantastic upon release and after aging for years.
Screw Tops: Friend or Enemy of Wine?
The final argument concerning reduction generally comes from people within the wine trade, and cork producers. There are many believers within the industry that wines closed under screw tops suffer from Reductive qualities. Sulfides, naturally occurring compounds in wine, are often added to protect against unwanted yeasts and microbes as well as oxidation. These compounds have the capacity to reduce and create ‘off’ flavors similar to rotten eggs or at the lower spectrum almost of a fresh un-used garbage bag. This reaction happened frequently before winemakers became more knowledgeable about newer technologies. Today, winemakers can be far more diligent in their oxygen management and sulfide addition techniques to be certain that there are no reducible sulfides in the wine before bottling. When employing screw tops, winemakers may craft a wine using less sulfides since this enclosure creates a more consistently anaerobic environment.
Screw tops are one of many recent developments in the form of wine closures. These innovative enclosures are not symbols of a fading tradition, a fizzling romance or a cheap date for entry level wines. Screw tops are a modern, innovative way to be certain that the wine ends up on the dinner table exactly as the winemaker intended it to taste. It is about insuring the quality of our time-honored tradition- taking an age old libation that brings so many of us happiness and twisting modern technology on tight to make certain the consumer has the opportunity to taste the fruit in its finest form from vine to bottle to glass.
Have a question about this post, friends? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and as always, Happy Sipping! Stay tuned friends ...More to come!
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Winery Info: Tarara Winery,13648 Tarara Lane, Leesburg, VA 20176-5236, (703) 771-7100
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