C is for Corks and Caps
Who can forget the classic Fawlty Towers scene where Basil, desperate to impress a hotel inspector, offends him instead by responding to his complaint that the wine is corked by saying, ‘I just uncorked it, didn’t you see? I took it out of the bottle: that’s how I managed to get the wine out of the bottle and into your glass.’ No, Basil! Corked doesn’t mean having the cork pulled out!
Nor does corked mean ‘having little bits of cork floating in it.’ The technical term for that is ‘having little bits of floating cork’ and is generally the result of too much brute force with the corkscrew being applied to a dry and weary cork.
‘Corked’ identifies a very specific problem. In mild cases it’s noticeable as an absence of fruit, of flavour, of general vim and vigour in the wine. That can be hard to spot unless you have drunk the same wine several times before (if you’ve bought a case from a wine club, say.) In extreme cases, though, a corked wine will have a distinctly unpleasant aroma of wet cardboard, or mouldy old newspapers. That’s hard to miss, and while not making the wine dangerous to drink, it certainly makes it unpleasant!
It’s caused by a fungal infection in the cork called TCA. Various methods have been tried by the Portuguese cork industry to eliminate the infection, but even their own trade body admits that they don’t work entirely, and around 1% of bottles are still tainted. More objective estimates generally put the figure about 5%.
Yes, for every twenty cork-sealed bottles of wine you buy, one is likely to whiff mustily. Imagine if one in every twenty loaves you bought was mouldy! Would you welcome a new type of paper bag, say, that made mould a thing of the past?
So why don’t we all whoop with joy when we see a screwcap topping off our wine bottle? Because in previous decades screwcaps were mostly used on big bottles of plonk, not high quality wine. They became as tainted with the whiff of cheap ‘n’ nasty as a badly corked Bordeaux…
Well, those days are gone: many of the world’s finest wines now feature screwcaps rather than corks. Henschke’s Hill of Grace, for instance, one of Australia’s most famous and expensive reds - £250 per bottle - is now bottled with a screwcap.
Respected Burgundian winemaker Gregory Patriat became converted to the cause after tasting a forty year old bottle that was ‘beautifully developed but retained all the freshness of its fruit. The same wine under cork had long since faded away.’ Patriat decided to make a point by screwcapping, not his entry-level reds and whites, but his top notch Grand Cru Charmes-Chambertin. This was heresy for French traditionalists – like selling Highland Park in a milk carton.
It has to be said that the conservative winemakers of the classic areas of Europe are less likely to pop their corks and throw them away than just about anybody else. In New Zealand, for instance, a country whose wineries show tremendous enthusiasm for change and self-improvement, 95% of bottles now come with a screwcap – that’s from 0% at the start of 2001! Yet in many areas of Italy it is actually illegal to use any other closure but cork.
I love traditional old world wine as much as anyone – probably a bit more in fact – but I have to admit a certain feeling of dread whenever I pull out the cork of some special bottle I’ve been saving for a birthday or anniversary. Is it going to be corked and stinky? Is it (and this is almost worse) going to be dull and disappointing, not quite bad enough to take back to the shop where you got it, but just, well, a complete waste of money?
I never have that dread when I open a screwcap bottle.
Are corks perfect? Probably not: nothing is. Glass bottles aren’t perfect, they let in light and they break if you drop them. But they’re much better than the oak barrels or clay pots that wine used to be transported in. And screwcaps are better than corks, which in their heyday a couple of centuries ago were a great improvement over the oily rags that they replaced.
So don’t screw up your nose at a screwcap. Prepare it instead for a hearty sniff of beautifully aromatic wine, perfumed just the way the winemaker intended – rather than how a lump of spongy tree-bark has moulded it.