Picture, if you will, the following scene.
You are on a date with that special person. You've
taken her to a fancy restaurant, complete with candles, and you have a very expensive shiny rock
burning a hole in your pocket.
She has ordered a slice of the finest lamb, with a fancy
sauce whose name you can't even pronounce. You have ordered a chunk of dead cow, so raw that it still says moo. Thus, after much
perusing of the wine list (complete with fake gasps of horror
that such a restaurant would even consider offering a Spanish
red), you have selected a St-Estèphe, a muscular red ideally
suited for the occasion both in taste and in Frenchness.
The sommelier arrives and shows you the bottle. As
expected, it is dark green and has a very plain label marked with absolutely
no English. You nod, and the foil is deftly removed. Then, with a deft flick
of his wrist, the sommelier unscrews the cap.
Corks have been used to seal drink bottles for several
millennia, and on all good French wines for at least four hundred years. They
are not state of the art technology. They are not, in fact, even particularly
good at their job.
When wine is left to age, there is a danger that the cork can
become tainted and start producing 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, an
unpleasant-tasting chemical that can ruin the wine's flavour. This is the main
(but not only) cause of what is known as corked wine.
Estimates as to how much wine is affected by corking vary.
For wines that are aged for five years or more, many producers estimate that
anywhere up to one bottle in twenty is tainted. The problem is becoming more and
more severe, since increased demand for wine has lead to a drop in the
availability of high quality cork. Thus, some wine producers are switching to
Synthetic cork substitutes are one option. However, as well
as being far harder to remove, synthetic corks are generally considered to be
not particularly good for stronger wines. A more popular alternative is the
Screw caps have been used on some cheap and nasty American
wines for a long time. With the quality of the wine not being an issue, little
effort was put into making the screw caps any good — so long as they
didn't leak, they were considered adequate. More recently, various new world
producers have worked hard to create a screw cap that is not only a replacement
for but an improvement over corks. Numerous scientific studies have shown that
they have succeeded, particularly with the Stelvin brand and imitation
Good screw caps consist of an inert metal covering (often an
aluminium alloy) that will not react in any way with the wine in the bottle.
Not so good screw caps consist of a not so inert metal covering that gets eaten
away by the acidity in the not so good wine in the bottle. A screw cap must be
almost or completely air tight — cork allows a very small amount of air
circulation, which some consider to be an important part of the ageing process,
but any substantial circulation leads to the wine becoming vinegar. Most screw
caps also include a tamper evident seal and some form of embossed or printed
So if, as proponents have claimed, high quality screw caps
provide a cheaper alternative to corks that is less prone to damaging the wine,
why are old world wine producers not jumping at the chance to change?
The question is one of image. Decorking a bottle is not as
easy as unscrewing it, but it carries with it certain connotation, among these
being class, sophistication and romance. Screw caps, on the other hand, are
associated with lemonade and the sort of wine that isn't even good enough to be
sold in a box. Whilst some Australian and New Zealand producers
are trying hard to market the change, French and (to a lesser extent) Italian
wine producers are eschewing it, not because of technical reasons, but because
It may be that, sooner or later, even the most expensive
French wines switch away from corks. However, in an industry where price is
still very much governed by an arbitrary set of
classifications from 1855, the scenario described is not likely to happen for
many decades to come.