Decanter screws up its courage

Decanter magazine made quite a bold statement this week – and a bit of a marketing move for their August issue. “Screwcaps are best: Decanter Verdict“, says the title, as if the pronouncement was the definite word on the issue.

Many of the big guns are on deck to affirm the position. Steven Spurrier calls the Stelvin screw cap enclosure “one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime”.

Yet if you keep reading, there is a big if that pops up further down in Adam Lechmere’s article:

Decanter may champion screwcap even for many robust reds, but on the subject of ageing wines, the jury is still out.

Anyhow, just reading the host of sometimes harsh and fiery comments (like the one from Neil Larson, winemaker at Tahbilk, an Australian winery I particularly like) that have been posted in reaction to that news bit shows that the debate is very, very far from over.

I’ll stick with a more moderate view that was beautifully and sensibly expressed by Tablas Creek’s Jason Haas, on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog. Which enclosure is best? It’s “not an open and shut case”, he says. Tablas Creek uses both. For rosés and whites that are best drunk young, crisp and fresh, he’ll go for Stelvin. For roussanne-based whites and red, which improve with aging and slow contact with oxygen, he prefers cork. Do read through his arguments, on his blog post and in a great interview on Appellation America, it’s quite precise and far away from the black and white views too often seen in this debate.

Mind you, on a recent update, Haas seems to be leaning a little further towards the screw cap, but again, in moderation. I completely applaud the view that we should take a gradual approach to this, instead of throwing the wine out with the enclosure, and waking up in twenty years with old wines that have aged in weird and unpleasant ways. Would that be the case? I don’t know. As the Decanter article says, the jury’s still out.

Besides, there are a number of issues to be taken into account. Different enclosures may well be more tools for the winemakers, depending on what they’re hoping to achieve. Matt Kramer pointed out in a Wine Spectator column that winemakers need to adjust their techniques to ensure that wine under screw cap doesn’t develop “sulfide characters, which typically produce rubbery or burnt-match odors.” Would that be a kind of screw cap taint I’m smelling there? (Kramer’s piece, based on French research, also debunks some myths about storing wine, like the idea that storing bottles upright will cause them to spoil.)

The type of wine, the sensitivity of various varietals to oxydation, the aging potential, or the quality of the cork itself, which is certainly a major issue. The presence of cork taint in wines is certainly related to quality issues in the cork industry, but as an article in the January 2007 issue of Wines & Vines points out, chlorinated cleaning products may have as much of a responsibility in the prevalence of cork taint than cork itself.

(The article even gives a solution for saving corked wines: “There’s a nifty home remedy for single TCA-ridden bottles: pour the wine in a bowl, crumple in a couple feet of Saran Wrap and stir–the polymers in the plastic pick up the TCA.” I’ll have to try that: I’ll let you know how it works the next time a corked bottle… pops up.)

And there is a sort of “best of both worlds” solution emerging with DIAM corks, made from natural cork but treated in order to eliminate the 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA, a fungi-related compound at the source of cork taint. There are convincing arguments for that enclosure, as can be read on the Hugel et fils blog. After years of experiment, Hugel has concluded that the DIAM is more reliable and the results in the wine’s evolution are more predictable. Anyone at Decanter care to comment on that?

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  1. [...] great closure debate: Corked wines? What corked wines? A little while a go, I worte about how Decanter had moved into the debate about corks and screwcaps by siding with the screwy side of the argument. If corked wines are a huge problem – up to 12% of [...]

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