Wine review: Cork vs Cap

The cork-or-cap question is a tricky one ... it’s all a matter of 'reduction’ says Victoria Moore, The Telegraph

Consider a scenario in which you are chatting to a sommelier about what wine to have before dinner.

“We’d like a glass of sauvignon blanc. What have you got?”

Sommelier: “Would you prefer one from the Loire Valley? We have a very good one from one of the new cooler climates in Chile, one from Elgin in South Africa…”

You: “Never mind that, which have screw caps?”

One can only imagine the moment of froideur as the sommelier wonders whether his painstakingly accrued knowledge will ever be appreciated. Whatever next? Will the wretched customer want to choose it by the typeface on the label?

natural cork tops

"Top it off: wine bottled with a screw cap used to be frowned upon, but many experts now argue in favour of this method over the cork"

I am with the customer here. The more wine, under both screw cap and cork, I taste, the more convinced I am that the closure can have more impact on the organoleptic properties of a wine than the place in which it is made. Terroir? Kimmeridgian clay, a patch of ancient alluvial gravel and a cooling onshore breeze? All of these can be overshadowed by the effect of whatever you find at the top of the bottleneck.

That’s my contention, anyway, and I was excited when, chatting to Mario Pablo Silva, of Casa Silva in Chile, about this last year he offered to put 200 bottles of the new vintage of his Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc, which usually goes under screw cap, under cork so I could see what, if any, difference it made to this particular wine.

The keenly anticipated bottles arrived in the country a few weeks ago but before I get to the tasting, a tiny bit of background.

The debate on corks and screw caps is controversial. So let me get a few things out of the way: not all corks and not all screw caps are alike, but in this column I’ll talk about them in general terms. I’m also going to leave aside the frustration of a winemaker who opens a case of his own wine, sealed under cork, to find the bottles have developed at different rates.

When I say the closure can have more impact than place on taste and smell I’m not referring to a wine that would be openly acknowledged to be faulty, say, corked, I’m talking about a mild version of something known as “reduction” that I often find on wines sealed with a screw cap.

To simplify, reduction is a term used to describe a wine that has developed some of a range of sulphur compounds in the absence of oxygen. In extreme cases, the wine may reek of burned rubber. Conversely reduction can be positive — low doses of “sexy sulphides” can add complexity to a chardonnay.

There’s also a middle ground for which the effect of reduction is to dumb down the nose and give it a very particular taste. I think we are being trained to like wine like this.

The party line on screw caps is that they keep a young white wine fresh. I was in New Zealand, spiritual home of the screw cap militants, when the South African winery Klein Constantia said they were switching back from screw cap to cork for their top lees-aged sauvignon blanc Perdeblokke to avoid “the inevitable development of slightly reduced characters”.

The Kiwi reaction was strong: “It’s an admission of incompetence. Reduction is a winemaking not a closure issue; you just need to handle the wine the right way.”

Maybe, maybe not. My view is that a large number of aromatic whites with screw caps are slightly reduced and that it’s a phenomenon that’s largely brushed aside.

I’m always getting into hot water for pointing it out. I liked the Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Chile – “Watch out Pouilly Fumé” was one eminent critic’s tasting note — but it was so tight it felt as if it had its hands tied behind its back, and it didn’t smell of much.

The 2010 cork and screw cap bottlings, from the same tank, bottled on the same day, arrived to great fanfare. I tasted them blind with two wine colleagues.

We all agreed on their clear differences. One had only a faint smell and was quite smoky and linear — tomato vines wound around an electric fence — with a high initial impact that quickly fell away.

The other was more aromatic and expressive, far easier to identify as a sauvignon blanc, and had more dance and flow, though I identified a slightly green phenolic finish that was hidden on the first sample. We all preferred the second wine and that was the one I carried on drinking.

“That’s obviously the screw cap as it’s more aromatic,” said my screw cap-minded colleague. It was not.

I took two more bottles into the office where eight guinea pigs failed to suspect they were tasting the same wine and to a man and woman said they preferred the smell of the wine under cork and the taste of the one under screw cap.

A sample of one wine is not enough to say which is the “best” closure, but I think it makes the point: it does make a substantial difference.

Click here for the original article and to view some counter-arguments in the comment section below it.

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