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
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
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.