To Screw or Not to Screw
“What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?”
Sitting down to write about corks vs. screw caps, I think of this infamous line from WC Fields. The cork polemic is often simplified into an Old-World vs. New-World wine debate. While us Europeans have clung to the tradition of cork since Greek and Roman times, our New World counterparts have embraced screw caps. Australia and New Zealand have led the charge with even top-end wines at £100 per bottle under screw cap.
The screw cap is undoubtedly a user-friendly option that eliminates bottle variation, premature oxidation and cork taint, as well as allowing bottles to be stored standing up. Meanwhile, the trouble with cork is that not all cork is born equal. The cork market varies from high-quality natural cork to low-end, often contaminated cork. Cork is also difficult to produce. The first harvest of a cork tree takes 25 years, but it takes a further 9 years for the cork to be of sufficient quality for natural cork closures. Cork producer Amorim has recently announced a trial plantation using drip irrigation to reduce this initial cycle down to a decade, but whether this will end in further diminished cork quality is too early to say.
Top-quality natural corks cost several euros per cork so they are usually only used for top-end wines. Next up comes DIAM cork where cork is chopped into pieces, treated with supercritical carbon dioxide to remove traces of TCA, then glued back together to create a non-porous stopper (this also prevents ‘random oxidation’ of low-porosity corks). This effective alternative to natural cork is used by wine merchants such as Louis Jadot and Bouchard Père et Fils and producer William Fèvre.
The lowest end of cork production is closely associated with the problem of TCA-related cork taint. This mold-like TCA chemical trace that is found in corks that have been produced with pesticides and wood preservatives. However, systemic TCA can occur in both corks and screw caps wines when wine barrels, drain pipes, wooden cellar beams and rubber hoses are tainted. In summary, TCA is primarily, but not exclusively a cheap cork problem.
“TCA dulls the aromatics of white wines: the vegetable and blackcurrant aromas of a Sauvignon Blanc or the flower, lime and lemon aromas of a Riesling” says Bradley Mitton of Mitton International Wines.
Mitton believes that 100% of cheap to mid-range wines should be under screw cap. Meanwhile, Richard Maria of Wine Palace Monte-Carlo believes that screw caps are useful for drunk-young wines: “The absence of cork taint, the economic attractiveness and a new mode of consumption mean that screw caps have found their place in the modern wine world.”
There is little doubt that the European cheap-cork market (particularly synthetic corks that have all the hassle of a cork-screw opening with none of the benefits of tradition) should move towards screw caps. Yet cork does have its place. The higher up the wine scale you go, the more nuanced the debate becomes. While most white wines suit the reliability of a screw cap, long-lasting Cabernet and Shiraz wines are a different matter.
“When you put big, explosive Bordeaux wines inside a screw cap, they’re screaming to breathe. So maybe those big ballsy red wines need a cork,” says Mitton. “However, the diversity from one cork to the next can be up to 1000% on how much air they let in. If you have six bottles of 1940 Château Cheval Blanc, they’re never going to taste the same. It’s virtually impossible unless they have the best corks that are like a piece of wood stuck in there. To be fair, the best Bordeaux wines often have such corks.”
I muse that if reliability were king in the wine world, there would be few admirers of Pinot Noir grape about which Miles in the iconic wine film Sideways said:
“It’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? […] Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Corks are the Pinots of bottle stops. As long as wine lovers are willing to put up with an element of lottery, temperamental corks are here to stay. So tonight I shall enjoy the theatrical romance of a cork-stopped bottle over a candlelit dinner for two.
Best Addresses in Monaco:
Wine Palace Monte-Carlo (Quai Louis II, tel +377 97-77-05-05, www.winepalacemontecarlo.com)Within the Yacht Club de Monaco, this wine shop offers a dizzying array of wines, champagnes and spirits. You can taste top-end wines by the glass in the fabulous interior designed by Sabrina Monteleone or on the shady terrace overlooking the yachts in Port Hercule.
Mitton International Wines (http://www.mittonwines.com) This Berlin-based wine company run by the ubiquitous Bradley Mitton sells reasonably-priced wines from family-owned, boutique wineries in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa. You can order wines online or enjoy tastings at Club Vivanova (www.clubvivanova.com) events in Monaco.
My Way 2 (7 avenue du Berceau, tel +377-97-70-21-38, http://my-way-2-restaurant.com) Near to the Novotel, this wine-shop-cum-restaurant fuses genres seamlessly as you grab a bottle from the bottle-lined walls to accompany a delicious table-d’hôte lunch.
Caves & Gourmandises (25 bd Albert 1er, tel: +377-97-70-54-94, http://cavesetgourmandises.com) This low-key wine shop in Monaco’s Condamine district has a good range of French and Italian wines and deli foods.