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(Don 't) Put a Cork in it!

Why won’t wine corks die?


18Most wine enthusiasts I know would agree that the cork-versus-screw-cap debate was settled long ago. Screw caps are undoubtedly superior to corks for keeping wine in good condition. Put simply, the screw cap’s seal is far more reliable and there is no danger of wine becoming corked, with the unpleasant musty taste, likened to wet dog, which is caused by tainted cork.

      However, it has just been announced that a new style of wine cork, which screws into the bottle, is being unveiled. The “Helix” as it’s to be called, is opened with just a twist of the hand. No corkscrew is necessary as the top of the bottle has a thread inside. I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was, why bother? And for me, it further raises the whole question of why the traditional kind of cork continues to dominate in much of the wine world anyway.

      Now I fully understand that the glass bottle and cork combination for wine is thought to have started in the 17th century, and is therefore steeped in tradition and history. But I believe it’s the wine inside the bottle that matters most, and newer materials exist today that are better suited for sealing a bottle than cork. I can see an out-dated argument that the humble cork adds some glamour to the otherwise mundane act of opening a bottle of wine. But many traditionalists have an irrational, over-sentimental attachment to wine corks, which has hindered (what should have been) the smooth passage of the screw cap. Many people predicted that by 2015 screw caps would dominate the wine industry. But in Europe and the US the cork still stubbornly remains king, which is more than a little puzzling. Wine has become democratic and modern, with prices and drinking styles to suit everyone, so why hasn't the closure method evolved?

      One clue as to cork’s refusal to die, might well be that Portugal, where most of the world's corks are harvested, has been aggressively promoting its usage. And has successfully fought back against the chemical compound trichloroanisole (TCA), one of the most common causes of tainted corks. Also, there is the theory that more expensive wines age better with more oxygen, which cork closure provides. (Sometimes too much so, ruining the wine). But there is certainly no consensus of opinion on this amongst wine experts. Some believe the supposition that the slow passage of air through the porous cork helps wine age, and develop a bouquet, is a myth. And in fact, screw-capped wine will still age well - the ullage (or air gap) takes care of that. After all, if twist offs are good enough for $200 bottles of Scotch whisky, then why not $20 bottles of wine? Progressive wine experts prefer the hermetic seal produced by screw caps precisely because it ensures the wine is not going to be faulty.

      If you really must have cork, and consider the Helix to be the answer, it’s worth remembering what it doesn't have - the suspenseful turning of the corkscrew followed by deft flick of the wrist (or undignified pull between the legs), and the ‘voila’ moment as cork comes free from bottle. Although, why should any knowledgeable person be remotely embarrassed about opening up a screw cap in front of guests. Indeed, why should any wine lover be ashamed of demonstrating that they really cared for their pleasure in the wine? Obviously for the old-school wine drinker, cultural expectations (and dare I say it… wine snobbery) are at play, and go a long way to explaining why big players in the wine industry would even contemplate producing a hand-screw cork. After all, the screw cap already exists. Somewhat amazingly, market research has shown that 90% of consumers in the US and 80% in France still prefer cork stoppers.

      The new Helix cork is similar to those found in sherry bottles, except without the plastic layer on top. The cork fits snuggly back into the bottle, unlike plastic stoppers or tougher less spongy corks. (But connoisseurs will know that the only way of keeping wine drinkable for the following day is to vacuum pump it.) The makers say it will be in European shops within two years, but also hope to grab a piece of the fast growing Chinese market, which has overtaken the UK to become the world's fifth biggest. Wine is all about tradition in China. French imports account for 50% of the Chinese market, and cork is what consumers expect.

       Wine is still an enigma, full of character and romance. And this dubious Helix innovation shows there is more to wine than reliability. But I’m not sure it will meet the criteria of the wine romanticist any more than the screw cap does. The more money he spends, the more ritual he wants for his buck. And that includes the corkscrew ceremony. After splashing out on a bottle of Pomerol or St Emilion, some people can’t help but feel they have been robbed if it opens the same way as a large bottle of Coke. The crack of a screw top is just not the same as the pop of a wine cork.

      I suppose the cork does have one other trump card, it grows on trees. It fits with wine’s earthiness, of no two bottles being quite the same. The French use the word ‘terroir’ to sum up this almost spiritual sense of local distinctiveness. A metal top guarantees consistency. But for the traditionalist it will never offer the joy of sniffing a fragrant, tannin stained cork. Even if there is a one in ten chance of it having infected the contents with harmful bacteria, or even worse, allowed the wine to oxidize!


Peter Jamesr


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