Wine lovers are constantly being told that corks are passé and screwcaps are the way forward. So where are all the screwcap bottles? NATASHA HUGHES goes looking

Wine lovers are constantly being told that corks are passé and screwcaps are the way forward. So where are all the screwcap bottles? NATASHA HUGHES goes looking

There’s a war on, you know. No, not a resumption of hostilities in the Gulf, but rather the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of wine drinkers in the great cork/synthetic/screwcap debate.

Of all the years since the closure issue came to prominence in this country, the last 12 months have seen arguably the most activity in terms of producers and wine writers coming down heavily on the side of screwcaps. But before you throw away your corkscrew, it should be pointed out that manufacturers of natural and synthetic corks aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.

Despite all the noise and thunder, natural cork is still by far the most popular closure of all, as Carlos de Jesus, marketing and communications director for Amorim, Portugal’s largest cork manufacturer, emphasises: ‘Our average annual sales in the past couple of years have been three billion corks and there’s been sustained growth in the past decade, too,’ he says.

He’s optimistic about the future. ‘I don’t see any radical changes,’ he says. ‘There will be an increased understanding of each type of closure’s strengths and weaknesses. In the long run, this will favour cork as our problem curve is heading downwards, while there has been an increase in the number of problems with synthetics.’

Predictably, Andrew L Starr, president of synthetic closure manufacturer Neocork, sees the future differently. ‘Synthetics are in the middle of a period of explosive growth,’ he claims. ‘Ten years ago, hardly any synthetics were sold. Now they have maybe 5–8% of the market. In five years’ time, we project that 40–50% of bottles formerly sealed with wood bark will be sealed with synthetic cork.’

It’s a bold prediction, but reliable figures are hard to come by at a time when wine sales per se are enjoying a period of constant growth. From that perspective, market share is a more reliable indicator of strength than raw sales figures. Whatever the true picture though, there is no doubt that producers of all kinds of closure are investing massive amounts in research and development. Portuguese cork producers have pledged to invest t6 million in an attempt to eradicate TCA taint, while manufacturers of synthetics focus their efforts on creating bespoke closures that fit the needs of their customers.

‘One advantage of a manufactured product is that you can build enhancements into it,’ points out Joyce Steers-Greget of Supremecorq.

So just what are these enhancements? NuKorc, an Australia-based manufacturer of synthetic closures, is also hard at work on research and development: ‘We’re working on closures with increased oxygen barrier properties as we believe limited oxygen ingress allows the vast majority of wine to have a suitable shelf life,’ explains Olga Kostic, NuKorc’s international marketing manager. The firm is spending Aus$2.3m (t1.25m) on a new plant in Adelaide with the aim of increasing its
production to 600 million closures a year.

race to the top

While manufacturers of both forms of cork jostle for position in the race for market share, they are looking nervously over their shoulders at the seemingly inexorable progress of the screwcap. So much so that when researching this topic, I was deluged with unsolicited copies of an article published in the February 2003 issue of the Australian Wine Research Institute’s (AWRI) Technical Review. The article is headed ‘Reduced aroma in screwcap bottled wines’ and talks of the development of rubber-like aromas developing in Semillons after 18 months in bottle under screwcap.

So has this setback halted the advance of the screwcap? Not quite. ‘There are two things to bear in mind about this trial,’ says Nigel Greening, owner of Felton Road, and a member of New Zealand’s Screwcap Initiative. ‘The first is that, when [the AWRI] bottled these Semillons, they didn’t follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for air space in the bottle. The second point is that there is a huge amount of library wine bottled in screwcap more
than 10 or 20 years ago and this is certainly not going reductive.

‘Randall Grahm, owner of California’s Bonny Doon winery and another advocate of alternative closures, concedes it is possible that a wine bottled in screwcap is more likely to develop reductive aromas. ‘I would be cautious about using it with something like Dolcetto,’ he says.

Grahm, who has staged a mock funeral for natural cork, has been an enthusiastic experimenter with alternative closures, although it has led to disappointments. ‘We began using synthetic closures with our lower-end wines in 1995 and had seemingly good results, so we used them on Cigare Volant and Old Telegram in 1997 and 1998,’ he says.
‘In retrospect, this was a huge mistake as these wines are designed for long ageing and their lifespans have been shortened prematurely.’
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Grahm reverted to cork in the short term, but plans to move on to screwcap as soon as possible. ‘Our 2001 Cigare Volant will be bottled in Stelvin. It seems to be the best of all the screwcap closures as it’s been around the longest and is the most well studied. Thirty years of studies at Yalumba have shown that ageable wines age more gracefully in screwcap and, from what little science I can glean, it seems logical that they should do so.’

UK supermarket giant Tesco is convinced, and is launching a £13.99 screwcap-bottled Chablis. The retailer considers the screwcap ‘technically the best’ form of closure, and claims that within five yars, most wine drunk in the UK will be sealed with a screwcap.

For the moment, however, screwcaps continue to command a small niche market, about 1% of the seven billion quality sealed wines sold per year. So one day will the majority of wines be sealed with screwcaps? The last word on this issue goes to Grahm: ‘Predicting this is like predicting the end of the Cold War,’ he says. ‘When it happens, it will happen suddenly. But not until a producer on the scale of Mondavi or Beringer moves into screwcaps. We Americans have it all backwards, and until an American does it, it won’t exist – but it will happen here before France or Italy as they’re
definitely behind the curve there.’

Natasha Hughes is a freelance writer.

Written by Natasha Hughes