If you drink wine sealed with corks you will sooner or later come across a bottle that is corked.
This is not good; ideally the aroma will be of that unpleasantly metallic gassy frizz-your-hair-and-make-your-eyes-water variety, which leads you to refuse the bottle if you're at a restaurant (arguing with the owner if need be) or ask for another bottle if you're at a tasting. Unfortunately, cork taint is not always this obvious. Quite the contrary, it can be subtle, and in its most pernicious form it simply casts a veil over the aromas, making the wine seem drab and uninteresting. In this form it's easy to miss, because there's nothing really obviously wrong -- the wine just seems humdrum, and there's certainly a lot of humdrum wine out there. However, if you do taste a second bottle of the wine, the difference is like the sun emerging from behind a cloud.
As you might guess, this latter sort of cork taint -- which I find to affect between 5 and 10% of the wines I taste -- gives winemakers fits. And there are solutions, for example synthetic corks, glass stoppers with silica rings, and screw caps. All of which (screw caps especially) are by now quite common outside of Italy. However, in Italy there is still considerable resistance to alternative closures, on the part of the Appellations, which continue to call for cork, and on the part of the restaurant trade, which claims that screw caps and such eliminate the "poetry" inherent in uncorking the bottle and sniffing the cork and so on.
How anyone can find a product that ruins 10% of what it seals poetic is beyond me, but they do. However, things are beginning to change, thanks in part to winemakers sick of the damage they suffer from bad corks (price does not guarantee an absence of taint) and thanks in part to importers requesting non-cork closures.
In 2009 I tasted Paolo De Marchi's 2007 Chardonnay IGT Toscana, which he bottles with screw caps for those who want them, and corks for those who don't. It was quite interesting: The wines were both very good (90-91 points for both), but also quite different; the screw cap was fresher, while the cork was a little more mature, and I concluded that, "Comparing them side-by-side is like looking at a pair of twins, who might seem identical at first glance, but reveal differences as one gets to know them; the screw cap wine is just a touch crisper and has a slightly harder edge to it, whereas the cork-stoppered wine is a little softer, and comes across as slightly more seductive. Both are very fine, and which you prefer will be a matter of taste. To continue with the twins analogy, one trains competitively -- the screw cap -- while the other -- the cork stopper -- dances."
Now Paolo is also bottling Cepparello with a screw cap for foreign markets that request it.
The Azienda Salcheto in Montepulciano is being even bolder: They have taken the radical step of bottling half of the 2005 vintage of their signature wine, Salcheto Evoluzione, which spends four years in bottle prior to release, with screw caps and the other half with corks. The same wine, with the screw cap bottles classified IGT, and the cork-sealed bottles Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, sold in boxed sets with one of each kind. As I said, a bold move, because it will oblige the many Italian consumers who greatly enjoy Salcheto Evoluzione to try a top quality wine with a screw cap closure of a kind still viewed with disdain here.
At Vinitaly we tasted them blind:
1 (the screw cap)
Fairly deep almandine ruby with black reflections and almandine rim that has faint hints of ruby to it. Fairly rich berry fruit with slight candied accents and clean bramble with some spice and delicate underbrush. Quite fresh, and displays considerable harmony. On the palate it's rich, deft, and elegant, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by brisk sour berry fruit acidity and slight underbrush, and by tannins that are warm and smooth, and flow into a clean bright tannic finish. Graceful, with beautiful acidity that interplays very well with the tannins, making a wine that is deft and quite light on its toes, rather like a dancer. It will go beautifully with a steak or roast, and will age quite nicely for many more years.
2 (the cork)
Fairly deep almandine ruby that has slightly more garnet to the rim. Moderately rich bouquet with berry fruit supported by warmth and slight balsamic accents with underlying greenish spice; it has a slightly ethereal feel to it and is somewhat more reserved than sample 1, while there are hints of cedar that don't stand out as much in the other. On the palate it's rich, with fairly bright sour cherry fruit supported by bright sour cherry acidity and by tannins that are quite smooth, and display a slight cedary burr that carries into a long fresh bright cherry finish. The tannins are a little smoother here, and display a greater degree of cedar and vanilla than those of sample 1, and this makes the wine a touch more settled than the first.
Both are quite elegant, and very pleasant to drink, to the point that one really cannot say that one is better and the other is worse. The first (which is the screw cap bottle) is slightly fresher, and a touch brighter, whereas the second is slightly more mature, and displays the oak to a greater degree.
A very interesting comparison, of a sort that would not be possible where screw caps are already commonly accepted. And quite impressive; the screw caps held very well, and were also more consistent -- there was some variation from one cork-stoppered bottle to the next, whereas the wine in the screw cap bottles was the same. And this brings up the question of what, exactly, the cork stoppered bottles, none of which suffered from cork taint, are getting from their corks. It turns out corks do release tannins into the wine, and also aromas, which Michele Manelli, Salcheto's Director, describes as "earthy and animal." And oxygen (which must be mopped up with a shot of sulfites to keep it from damaging the wine), even if the bottling line fills the neck of the bottle with inert gas.
The bottom line is that for wines to be drunk young, alternative closures are definitely a good idea, and given this the Nobile di Montepulciano Consorzio's decision to allow bottling Rosso di Montalcino with screw caps is quite interesting and -- for Italian Appellations -- potentially groundbreaking. For wines to be aged? Corks are potentially more interesting because of what they release, but there are several ifs. What is the quality of the cork, what tannins will it emit, and what aromas? In short, Michele says, corks in the long run are a roll of the dice. They may improve the wine, but they may not, and in this respect are like barriques, which can have more or less positive effects upon the wine they contain.
Bottom Line: I will continue to appreciate corks in bottles suitable for long aging, because when they contribute positively they can add wonderful nuances, but will certainly not look askance at a screw cap, even from the most august Appellation.
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
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