Thursday, January 26, 2012

Recommended Reading: To Cork or Not to Cork

Bringing wine to the consumer is a long, risky road.  From the vineyard, where weather can make or break a vintage, through harvest and fermentation, where a wine producer can meddle too much (and occasionally too little), to aging (how long and in what), and finally to bottling and transport, there are hundreds of risky choices to be made.

Bottling?  What’s the risk there?  It turns out that bottling, or rather how the bottle is sealed, can be the biggest risk of all.

That’s the story of To Cork or Not to Cork:  Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle.  (Don’t worry…the editor did a better job on the rest of book than with the title.)  George Taber, who previously brought us Judgment of Paris, takes us through the history of the cork as a wine bottle closure and the why and how of alternative closures, such as the screwcap.

Ever had a bad bottle of wine?  Chances are that the wine itself was not inherently bad.  Odds are the wine was “corked”.  “Corked” refers to that unpleasant, musty, wet cardboard smell that can obliterate any other aroma that a wine should have.  Smell it once and you’ll never forget it.  (Read my own sad story about a corked wine here.)

Most often, cork taint happens when a chloroanisole (there are different ones, the most common is trichloroanisole – TCA) is present in the cork or, less commonly, in the cellar.  In the former case, Taber says that tainted corks affect from 3-5% of all wines that have a cork stopper.  In the latter case, the effect on a winery can be devastating, with entire vintages poured down the drain or, in the case of Chateau Latour, rebuilding the entire winery.

Back in 1970s, a corked wine was a comparatively rare occurrence.  Then, starting with the 1986 vintage, a minor problem became a major one as the incidence of corked wines shot up.  Why?  Worldwide demand for wine was increasing, many new producers entered the market, and the need for the traditional bottle closure – cork – went way up.  To meet that demand, cork producers threw quality control, which had never been their strong point, out the window.  Even more infuriating for the wine consumer, many wine producers – even the top ones in Bordeaux  – engaged in a shameful industry-wide hush campaign, refusing to admit that any problem existed, often ascribing the “problem” to uneducated wine-drinkers.  Taber quotes Hugh Johnson,
If all wine-drinkers recognized it, and rejected every tainted bottle, the wine-trade would go bust.  It is worrying to think that its profits depend on its customers’ ignorance.
By the time I finished reading these chapters on the complacency within the cork industry and the cover-up by wine producers, I was ready to swear that I would never again buy a wine with a cork stopper.

This conspiracy of silence existed for 20 years, consumers be damned!  Some producers, especially in Australia and New Zealand, rebelled and began to search for alternatives:  agglomerated corks (still risky for taint), synthetic and plastic corks (poor seals, not suitable for wines meant for aging), crown caps (cheap image), glass stoppers (elegant…my favourite), and cork’s main competitor, the screwcap.  Taber takes us through each one of these closures, with their advantages and disadvantages.

In the case of screwcaps, the biggest disadvantage is reduction:  the airtight seal traps ongoing chemical reactions in the bottle that can result in various unpleasant sulphur compounds.  (Cork allows these odours to escape over time through the gradual exchange of oxygen.)  But these aromas of rubber and rotten eggs tend to be less recognizable than cork taint.

Which is better, cork or screwcap?  Which evil is lesser?

That’s where Taber leaves us.  Cork producers have improved quality control, but cork taint continues to exist because hundreds of slipshod cork producers are still in business.  Each type of closure has its rabid supporters.  But none of the closures is foolproof, and research continues.

It’s a great read and very well-researched, although you may have to be a wine fanatic to get through every page.  But if you are a fanatic, you’ll love it.

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