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The Turn of the Screwcap (February 21, 2002)

It's coming. Whether you like it or not. The screwcap's time has arrived. Get over it.

On a wine trip to Australia last October I had to surrender the corkscrew from my carry-on luggage. After all, it's potentially as lethal as a box cutter.

On board I noticed that one of the wines in Qantas Business Class was Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 1999. It had a Stelvin (screwcap) closure. Most airlines have screwtop splits in "cattle class," which traditionally speaks to the quality of the wine, the natural assumption being that if a wine comes in screwcap it must be cheap and cheerful (or cheerless, depending on the producer).

I was curious as to why Qantas would carry a screwcap wine in Business Class. Was it an economy measure or was this the first step in doing away with corkscrews on aircraft even for flight attendants? When I enquired I got this email from the Qantas people: "We will continue to use Stelvin closures on Riesling in the future in line with industry trends [my italics]. We will continue to use corkscrews in the Premium cabins (Business and First) as no Premium wines are available in Stelvin closures. FYI: The corkscrews in question do not have a cutting device on them and are not themselves sharp and can be used on board."

The industry and consumers alike are fed up with "corked" wines – wines tainted by trichloranisole (TCA), a chemical formed by the interaction of residual bleach on the cork and the wine. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 5 percent of wines are corked, and that is a conservative estimate. No other industry would tolerate one in twenty of its products being defective.

The twist-top with its white plastic liner has proven to be the most effective sealant for wine. When I visited the Geisenheim Research Institute in the Rheingau last year I noticed that most of the bottles in their cellar were under screwcaps – even reds – some dating back to 1973. According to the Institute's director, Dr. Ernst Rühl, "Screwtops for scientific purposes are the best thing. All the wines will be the same. With cork you get variations. Look at the top of a corked bottle. There's some kind of mould growing there. You don't get that with a screwtop and you don't get any leakage."

German producers have yet to follow Geisenheim's example. It is New Zealand and Australia who are blazing the trail. Twenty-seven Kiwi producers now bottle their Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc in screwcaps and 14 quality producers of Riesling in Australia's Clare Valley have gone the same route – including such stellar wines as Grosset, Mount Horrocks, Mitchell and Knappstein.

Jeffrey Grosset, voted Riesling Winemaker of the Year at the second Riesling Summit in Hamburg in Hamburg in 1998, has been tasting screwcapped Rieslings over 20 years old and has found the wines to be in "excellent condition." His decision to go screwcap has nothing to do with convenience or cost (there is no significant cost advantage), nor is it about marketing. "This is a quality issue," he says, "it has been driven by winemakers... Unscrewing a cap, rather than pulling a cork, will indicate an assurance of quality – whatever quality went in will be unaffected. The uncertainty of whether the wine has been tainted by cork will be eliminated."

Even red wines are now being considered as screwcap candidates. Plumpjack, a premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producer, has bottled a test quantity of its wine under these closures. While the world's major brands, such as Mondavi, Rothschild, Gallo and Southcorp, are leery of the move and are waiting on the sidelines to see if the consuming public will accept the new closures, many of their smaller competitors are contemplating it. Canadian producers are also wary, since consumers equate twist-tops with cheap wine. According to Paul Speck, President of Ontario's Henry of Pelham winery, "We need a heavyweight like Mondavi or Penfolds to start. Our reputation in Canada is too delicate to do it. It's almost like we're at the edge of a cliff ready to jump. As soon as Mondavi does it, everybody will because it makes so much sense."

If screwtops do take off, the cork industry in Portugal will not collapse; they will find other markets for their product. But the manufacturers of corkscrews will have to find another business. And what will happen to the sommelier's presentation ritual? Certainly, the drawing of a cork is more romantic than handing a piece of metal to a customer. (Champagne, which can also be corked, is stored in the cellars under crown caps before being disgorged. Think about opening champagne with a bottle opener!) But for my money I would rather have the guarantee of a clean wine and one that tastes exactly like the rest of the case than experience the nervous anticipation of opening a cherished, long-cellared bottle only to find that it's been ruined by cork taint.

Bring on the screwcap, I say, and the hell with tradition.

Finally, a tip on how to open a stubborn screwcap: Turn clockwise to tighten the cap hard before you twist counter-clockwise to loosen it with a snap.




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