In much of the rest of the world non-cork closures for wine bottles have become quite normal, and are also used for top quality wines. In Italy there is pressure in this direction, but the Appellations and restaurants are less enthusiastic, as I noted in an IGP article I wrote after tasting Salcheto's Salcheto Evoluzione, their top wine, which was released this year as both Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, with a cork, and IGT, with a screw cap.
The wine spent four years in bottle prior to release, and in that case I preferred the screw cap to the cork.
At Brezza they are also experimenting with alternative closures, glass stoppers in which the seal is provided by a ring of inert silica, and Enzo was pouring three vintages during Nebbiolo Prima: the 2005, 2004, and 2003. Three very different vintages; 2005 was cool and wet, yielding wines that are greener and more acidic than is the norm, 2004 was very good, and 2003 was one of the hottest in living memory, yielding wines that are quite ripe and tend to be fairly soft.
To be honest, since I was struck by the freshness of the Salco Evoluzione with a screw cap, I expected to like the wine from bottles with glass stoppers better than that from bottles with corks, but it wasn't that easy. I tasted the wines, in pairs, blind.
20051: Brezza Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2005 -- Cork
Pale fairly bright almandine with almandine in the rim. The bouquet is bright, with rich green leather and leaf tobacco supporting somewhat greenish accents and some berry fruit. The bouquet is slightly better defined than that of number 2. On the palate it's bright, with rich fresh berry fruit supported by lively slightly greenish berry fruit acidity and by tannins that have a pleasant warmth to them, and also some greenish spicy notes, and flow into a clean fresh fairly rich savory finish. Nice definition and depth, and quite upstanding; it has a bracing freshness to it, and also displays greater finesse than 2, with a crispness of focus that 2 doesn't quite manage.
2: Brezza Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2005 -- Glass
Slightly duskier almandine with a bit more brick to it, and almandine rim. A touch darker, and not as bright. The bouquet is not as rich as 1; it's a touch muted, and has delicate greenish accents mingled with spice and slight jammy notes. It's not quite as fresh as number 1, though the difference is slight. On the palate it's ample and rich, and a bit broader than 1, with fairly rich fruit that's supported by acidity that's not quite as bright, and by tannins that are smooth and do have a savory burr, and flow into a fairly long broad finish with marked savory underpinning. Very pleasant, and though still quite young is a wine one could drink now.
1: Brezza Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2004 -- Glass
Elegant ruby with black reflections and hints of almandine in the rim. The bouquet is rich, and elegant, with rather languid sour cherry fruit laced with rosa canina and leaf tobacco; it's richer and more complex than either of the 2005 wines, and also displays considerable and pleasing freshness, with some rather languid accents as well. A lot going on. On the palate it's bright, with rich savory sour cherry fruit supported by deft berry fruit acidity and tannins that have a slight splinteriness to them that is youth, but also a degree of steeliness and presage velvet. It's very young, but beginning to come into its own, though to really reach that point it needs a few more years. In a word, impressive.
2: Brezza Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2004 -- Cork
Elegant ruby with deep black reflections; it's very similar to 1, but 1 has a touch more almandine in the nail. Fresh, bright nose with fairly intense herbal notes, sage, hints rosemary, and steelyness, also sour berry fruit, some black pepper, and as it opens rosa canina and sea salt with some underlying iodine bitterness too. Quite harmonious, and by comparison with number one is a little more intense and perhaps more linear, with greater definition. Number one is instead more dispersed, for want of a better descriptor -- going in more directions at once. On the palate this is a touch more linear than number 1, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by berry fruit acidity and by tannins that are a little softer and smoother, and by pleasing savoryness as well, which flow into a fairly long sour cherry finish with a tannic savory underpinning. The two are very similar, but there is perhaps a touch more complexity to 1 -- an impression that may be just because it's not quite as tight, and therefore reveals more facets -- and a touch more finesse to 2.
20031: Brezza Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2003 -- Cork
Elegant almandine with black reflections and some almandine in the rim. The bouquet is intense, with berry fruit and wood smoke mingled with green leather and bitter accents that bring dusky shadows to mind. It has a brooding quality to it, and also reveals a degree of heat. It feels blocky, somehow. On the palate it's full and rich, with ripe rather soft sour cherry fruit that has slight jammy accents and warmth, but isn't at all cooked -- something that was a problem for many in 2003 -- and is supported by fairly deft berry fruit acidity -- less than the 04, but there is enough for good direction -- and smooth tannins that have a slight greenish burr, and flow into an ample fairly soft tannic finish with a pleasant berry fruit underpinning
2: Barolo Bricco Sarmassa 2003 -- Glass
Elegant almandine with black reflections and some almandine in rim; by comparison number 1 has just a hint more orange. The bouquet is fresh, and very clean, with a degree of linearity to it, and clean berry fruit supported by spice and slight leaf tobacco; it displays a pleasing deftness and freshness to it, and doesn't have the shadowy bitterness that emerges from number 1. On the palate it's fll and rich, with powerful sour cherry fruit supported by moderately intense fairly bright greenish berry fruit acidity, and by tannins that are quite smooth, with a slight savory burr, and flow into a fairly long greenish sour berry fruit finish. By comparison with number 1 it is fresher and better defined, and also gives an impression of being cleaner. This is a question of degrees; I would have found number 1 impressive (considering the vintage) had I not also tasted number 2, which goes much, much further.
The bottom line is that, barring cork problems (of which see below) the differences between the wines with cork stoppers and those with glass stoppers are minimal, subtleties that one detects because one knows that the closures are different, and sets out to find them.
Were one pouring from both bottles in the course of a dinner, and drinking the wines with foods, rather than scrutinizing them while sitting at a table in a quiet room, one would likely not note the differences between the wines from the first two vintages (2005 and 2004), and this is a good thing, because as Enzo notes, the world's supply of good quality cooks is finite, and finding top quality corks is becoming steadily more expensive and more difficult.
The fact that alternative closures do give results as good as these after several years offers assurances for the future.
In the 2003 vintage there was a much more marked difference, because the cork hadn't held as well as it should have. Enzo, who drinks the wine often, said the one that had been closed with a cork was dead, and while I wasn't that drastic it did show poorly by comparison with the wine that had been in the bottle with the glass stopper.
The final analysis shows (once again) that alternative stoppers do offer a viable alternative to cork. They may not contribute the way top quality corks can to a top quality wine, but, at least short-medium term intervals they will do no harm, and this -- as I have said before -- makes them ideal for wines destined to be drunk soon after bottling, which are the vast majority of wines on the market. For longer term aging the jury is still out, but so far the results are promising.
Brezza is a very fine, very traditional -- while I was tasting Enzo's father was serving some clients, and when one of them asked if he had any barriqued wines, sputtered mightily -- winery in Barolo. In addition to making wine they have a hotel and restaurant, that would be a nice base for exploring this part of the Langhe.
For more information, check their site.