Cork Versus Synthetic Enclosures and Screw Cap.

Imagine yourself entertaining a friend, business associate, or family in a restaurant. You order a bottle of wine and the server pours a little in your glass for approval. The wine smells terrible, moldy, foul like a bacteria-ridden carpet, wet cardboard, and plain repulsive.

What to do? Quietly state the fact and ask the server to bring another bottle. If he/she begins to argue, call the manager over and insist that the wine be replaced; never become angry or belligerent.

The fact is that many servers and even managers have no idea how a corky wine smells, and frankly most could not care less!

Statistics show that approximately three to eight percent of all natural – cork enclosed bottles are faulty. This can result from the chlorine treatment of the cork bark, or from moldy, dirty cellars, where bacteria have been multiplying for years.

Since corky wine has been a major problem, many French and American manufacturers attempt to produce artificial corks, or compounds to glue ground cork. So far, attempts have been only partially successful, although many wineries (600 world-wide) use them.

The culprit is 2-4-6 TCA (trichloroanisol) an extremely potent compound resulting from faulty treatment of cork bark or moldy cellars. Interestingly enough, TCA is also found in food and bulk wine. It is so potent that as little as five parts per trillion can be detected by smell. The olfactory perception of some people is less acute than in others.

Simply put, the equivalent a couple of dozen grains of salt of TCA can infect an Olympic size swimming pool

Corky wine has always been a problem for wineries and all accept returns. The LCBO replaces any TCA-tainted wine without question, provided you can produce a receipt.

Robert Mondavi Winery of California goes to extra-ordinary lengths by employing an expert who supervises workers cutting barks from cork trees, and through the whole process, until shipments arrive at the winery. The winery bottles nine million cases, therefore can afford such vigilance.

SupremeCorq, Neocork Technologies of Napa, Nomacorc and Sabate are only a few artificial cork manufacturers who claim their products to be safe and suitable for long cellaring. During the 2008 recession, many cork manufacturers had to declare bankruptcy. This is partially due to the fact that artificial enclosures are too tight and do not allow any oxygen to penetrate as cork does, and hence make the wine “stagnant”, but also to the fact that the cork industry spent millions to review cork production technology and now produces less faulty products.

Neocork technologies of Napa invented an enclosure consisting of a foam core with a plastic covering, and Supreme Corq patented Presevera.

Now it is commonly believed that carefully processed cork, Stelvin screw caps for quick-consumption wines, and conglomerate corks are most suitable a s closures.

In Ontario, Malivoire Wine Company uses artificial cork and reports satisfaction with their performance. Many others use compound corks (ground cork bound with a glue) some of which are better designed than others, but all seem to be more suitable for wines meant to be consumed within a year or two after harvest.

Champagne manufacturers and a few wineries glue a thin slice of perfect cork at the bottom of a compound cork claiming it to be very effective, but not much less expensive than a regular high-quality cork.

Plumpjack, a reputable and high-end Napa Valley winery, recently marketed its screw capped Cabernet Sauvignon in a box along with a bottle of traditionally corked bottle. Management reports to have no complaints but the practice has been abandoned.

Franciscan Winery in Sonoma County has been using artificial corks for the past seven years successfully. Only the sommelier of the tasting room complained that the corks were too tight and he had to use “ extra power “ to extract each one of them

Chimney Rock, Parducci, DeLoach, and St. Supery, all California wineries, are experimenting with artificial corks, but a few others who attempted to use them are disappointed.

One small Napa Valley winery in particular had to cancel its entire vintage release due to a faulty artificial cork and is suing the manufacturer.

It is believed that artificial corks are acceptable for quick consumption wines only. Modern, tight-sealing screw tops manage to keep the wine fresh, if the top has been flushed with an inert gas (nitrogen or a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) prior to enclosure, but once the bottle is enclosed the total exclusion of oxygen prevents the wine to evolve. Some 600 wineries worldwide use 300 million artificial enclosures, versus 13 billion natural corks. The percentage of artificial enclosure usage is increasing but still remains small. Regardless of popularity cellaring worthy red wines seem to be adversely affected by artificial cork enclosures.

Screw caps lack romance and sophistication. Many consumers still associate screw-capped wines with bargain basement and low quality. However, today’s screw capped wines must not and cannot be compared those of 20 years ago.

Although there are now several New Zealand and Australian wineries that market all their wines (low- and high-end) all stoppered with screw caps. The Stelvin screw cap design is hailed as the best and seems to please many users. Considering the fact that 98 per cent of all wine consumed is young and rarely older than two years old screw caps offer advantages, and above all eliminate corky wines, a headache of wineries.

It should be stated that New World wineries are more interested in screw caps and other synthetic enclosures than Old World establishments.

Restaurants managed by traditional restaurateurs are definitely against using them, except for carafe and by the glass wines.

Wineries are determined to find a solution to corky wines. Cork is also becoming an expensive commodity since only five countries (Portugal, Spain, Morocco, France and Italy) produce and demand has been outstripping supply for a number of years. (A few other countries seem to have warm enough climates for the cork tree but as of yet produce miniscule quantities).

If anyone could succeed in making screw capped wine and/or conglomerate corks popular, it would be one or a few New World wine producing countries. California or New Zealand, and Australia come to mind.

The completely glass stopper invented in Germany has had limited success. It is more expensive and more cumbersome, but works well for quick-consumption wines.

Famous European wineries and chateaux are definitely not interested in experimenting with artificial corks or screw tops.

An average sized cork (50 – 60 mm.) contains 80 000 miniscule air bubbles in its structure and this quantity seems to contribute to the evolution of wine, if it is properly,  stored at the proper temperature in a well designed cellar.

Chateau Lafite, Grange hermitage from Australia and other grand cru chateaux continue to send their cellar masters to important markets to re-cork their fine wines from time to time.