CORK closures are back in the firing line and it’s difficult to feel even a qualm about the intensity of the heat. The occasion that led to the reopening of hostilities was the feedback session after this year’s judging of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Speaker after speaker — not only the judges, but the local winemakers who attend to glean and share information with the leading figures from the wine world who make up the judging panels — excoriated those still so hidebound in their ways that they persist on using the bark of the cork oak to seal their bottles. As Tom Carson, one of the judges and chairman of the Australian National Wine Show, said: "If you can’t see the problem, you can’t see the solution."
Closures have often been the central discussion point at this event, but evidence of how many of the wines in this year’s competition had been tainted by cork brought a peculiar acrimony to the occasion; 13% of all the wines at the trophy judging (when the best 31 wines of the event are reviewed by all the panels) were adversely affected, with a staggering 66% of the cork-closed white wines ruined by closure. A review of the cork-taint statistics from the judging shows that 10% of the cork-closed wines were sent back with a request for a second bottle. Not all these rejects turned out to have faulty corks, but most did.
Over the years, SA has seen a slow shift towards the use of screw cap/Stelvin, especially for the more fragile white varieties. At the competition, 62% of Sauvignon Blancs were screw-cap sealed, while Chardonnays and reds are still mainly under cork. Producers defend its continued use by saying the market is far less tolerant of screw caps than critics imagine. One of the local judges, Angela Lloyd, disposed of this argument with the withering observation that if 62% of the Sauvignons were sealed with Stelvin, there was clearly less resistance to it as a closure than the cork brigade likes to imagine.
It was once assumed that when screw caps became part of quality wine packaging, the trend towards wider usage would be swift and inexorable, but this has not been the case. There are several reasons for this, beginning with the untested assumption of consumer resistance. Many also cite the improvement in cork quality over the past five years and the introduction of new-generation composite corks, which are less prone to taint. For those who do not wish to embrace the modern alternative, these are undoubtedly convenient excuses.
Some also maintain the perfect hermetic seal of Stelvin can lead to problems of reduction (a stale pongy note evident in wines where the wine was not properly prepared for the alternative closure).
The mere fact that this argument is advanced at all is an indication of the deep-seated resistance to change: blaming screw caps for producers’ inability to use them properly is like blaming car makers for the increase in road accidents in wet weather.
The last redoubt of the Luddites is that the long-term qualities of Stelvin have yet to be tested. This is also a red herring. Trials over the past 30 years have not raised serious concerns about them. It is also something of a fantasy to suggest that people keep wine for any length of time — 90% of what is sold in the UK is consumed within 24 hours of purchase. However, for those who fall into the remaining 10%, a taste test conducted recently in Australia should put this concern to bed.
Thirty-two identical pairs of wines closed under both cork and screw cap, and aged for a period ranging from seven to 16 years, were tasted blind by a panel that included wine judges and sommeliers. Only two of the cork-closed bottles were voted better than the screw-capped alternative — not great odds for those who fancy a flutter.
• Fridjhon was judges’ chairman at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.