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Published by: Bianca Cotellessa on Apr 22, 2013
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Jordan P. Ross

Cork has been the traditional stopper for 300 years and as such plays an important role in the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine as well being perceived as permitting wine to improve with age. A bad cork or one that has been infected by mold will ruin a bottle of wine. Winemakers are switching to synthetic alternatives because they feel cork “taint” - the wet basement aromas which a moldy cork imparts to the wine - is increasingly undermining the quality of their wine.

Twenty years after this defect was discovered, winemakers are frustrated that the cork industry has paid only lip service to the problem. With the development of synthetic alternatives some winemakers are changing. The most extreme countermeasure to date has been taken by an elite Napa Valley producer who recently bottled their reserve Cabernet Sauvignon costing $135 with a screw cap.

But cork producers claim they have developed a technique, which allows them to better screen for cork taint before the cork is put into the bottle. Winemakers say they have heard these promises before. Consumers – most

” This article will investigate questions which are important not only to winemakers but to consumers.it has a metaphysical value. Quercus suber the majority of which grows in Portugal. a waxy substance that makes cork waterresistant. The debate pits defenders of tradition who are sentimental towards cork such as David Noyes. I’ve seen experienced winemakers pour their own wine all over themselves trying to pull out a cork. He states. which means that . And most sommeliers embrace synthetics because they eliminate most of the problems with bad bottles. the cork is a time capsule of the air that was present during the eight years the bark took to grow back to the proper diameter to be harvested. collectors and sommeliers. Cork is composed of tiny air-containing cells. “The ceremony of extracting a cork is often really more a battle. which is why it floats in water and is easily compressible into the bottleneck. The diameter of the cork is on average 24mm. winemaker at Kunde Estate. Winemakers are cautious about tampering with tradition for their wines which benefit from bottle aging because is it not known whether a synthetic cork or a screw cap will permit a wine to improve in bottle like a natural cork is believed to. Cork is a natural product and a traditional closure for wine. After insertion. both from a standpoint of getting the cork out and seeing if the wine is OK. the cork bounces back to 18mm – the diameter of the bottleneck -. The jaws of the corker compress the cork to16mm to fit it into the bottleneck.” Against dispassionate.that’s just part of the mystery. “wine has a value that has nothing to do with its taste or flavor -. Over half the volume of cork is empty space. practical minded people who say to heck with tradition and aesthetics such as Christian Butzke former Professor of Enology at UC Davis. In fact. The question is if people really want to maintain that ceremony or what I would say is to some degree an unknown adventure.of who are unaware of what cork taint is – do not mind synthetics. What role does natural cork play in bottle aging and can it be duplicated with synthetic corks or screw caps? Should natural cork be considered sacred? How readily should tradition be abandoned when it gets in the way of quality? The Virtues of Cork Cork comes from the bark of an evergreen oak. The cell walls contain suberin. it takes about 40 years to harvest the first commercially acceptable cork. But all this applies to white wines meant for early consumption. After planting. who comments. You are going to come across corked bottles from time to time -. Natural cork’s flexibility allows it to conform to irregularities of the bottleneck.

Anna Matzinger. But a tightly fitting cork kept wet on the wine end is very slow to pass oxygen. Vice President and General Manager of Cork Supply USA. As oxygen gets from the outside to the inside it doesn’t jump straight into the wine but reacts with the wine that has soaked into the cork. While a short cork can put sufficient pressure against the bottleneck. the cork is coated with paraffin. Since the cork is not pulled in. To improve the seal. does air get through the cork and into the wine during aging? Vernon Singleton. the headspace must be relieved by an inflow of air. Assistant Winemaker at Archery Summit in Oregon explains. California concurs that there is some very minor oxygen exchange between the cork and the wine which is believed to help the wine age. It’s an aesthetic decision but also a two-inch cork is for wines that have longer aging potential. People say that the cork breathes which is really a myth . Inc.” Is Longer Better? Since aesthetics play an important role in the enjoyment of wine.” The pressure the cork puts against the glass is the important factor in preventing leaks.the cork is not supposed to breath. it is not supposed to allow any oxygen to get into the wine.6mm or 25% of the cork is pushing out against the glass to create the seal. UC Davis Professor Emeritus and an expert on wine aging. which acts as a lubricant to ease insertion and extraction. one does not want to pull out a short.” He adds that cork becomes a better barrier to oxygen . He adds. answers. Singleton believes that air does get into the wine as an indirect result of wine evaporating through the cork.as the last few millimeters become saturated with wine. which repels wine and Silicone. Does Cork Really Breath? A controversial question is what role does the cork play during bottle aging? Specifically. “We use a 1 _ inch cork for our white wine and a 2 inch cork for our more expensive wines.” James Herwatt. a longer cork gives somewhat better protection from leaks that are due to imperfections in the cork or the .not a better seal . Dry cork is fairly permeable to oxygen. pockmarked cork from an expensive bottle of wine. in Benicia. He states. Ideally. “A qualified no. “But that’s an ongoing debate. “Water and ethanol are both small. volatile molecules and very slowly evaporate through the cork which accounts for the increased headspace in very old bottles.

winemakers leave a headspace between the cork and the wine to allow for the wine to expand if its temperature increases after it has left the winery. wine is forced to leak out between the glass and cork. Whenever wine leaks out.” In addition to an improper vacuum. They will look at the vacuum pump to see if it’s pulling a vacuum and if that gauge is moving they assume it’s pulling a vacuum but the lines could be stopped up with dust and it was not actually pulling a vacuum.bottleneck. Pulling a cork out of a bottle is an important part of the ritual and . a modern corker will pull a vacuum in the bottleneck. During bottling. Since the cork is not sucked in. mistakes during the bottling process can be responsible for leaks and premature aging. When the Cork is Not to Blame In reality. the seal is compromised and the wine suffers. In addition. One cork supplier commented that winemakers pay less attention to bottling than winemaking. Either way. For example. If the fill level is too high then the headspace will be too small to accommodate even a minor increase in temperature and will cause a leak. after the bottle is filled with wine. air goes in to replace it and the wine ages more rapidly. a winery. inserting a cork compresses that chamber of air so that with the bottle on its side or upside down. which removes oxygen from the headspace as well as preventing the headspace from being pressurized when the cork is inserted. overfilling the bottle can cause wine to leak beyond the cork. air does get into the wine either during bottling and/or through the cork during bottle aging. Too strong a vacuum on the other hand. “We’re finding that winery owners will spend a tremendous amount of money on vineyards. With a longer cork it is the less likely the wine will find its way all the way through. machines. Evidence for this is the commonly held belief that half bottles age more rapidly than full bottles. With an insufficient vacuum. air is “inhaled” into the headspace. The ABC’s of TCA The most important issue facing the cork industry and winemakers is cork taint. When the wine cools back down the volume contracts. but they don’t check to see if they have developed head pressure in the bottle. removes the oxygen but creates a negative pressure in that headspace which will be equalized by pulling air in alongside the cork. corkers. since a given inflow of air would have twice the impact on a half bottle.

in direct proportion to the price of the wine . Wineries doing that are having very good results and going ahead with natural cork. the cleanliness of the tanks. Daryl Eklund is General Manager of Amorim Cork America in Napa sees wineries paying more attention to cork. barrels.6 trichloroanisole (TCA). When the corks come in. hoses – anything that comes in contact with wine. back to natural and back to synthetic again. the concerns are magnified. TCA masks a wine’s fruit character with what is described as moldy. Somewhere in the process – from stripping the bark off a cork oak tree in Portugal to storage in the winery prior to bottling – cork can become tainted. there is huge variation in individual sensitivity to TCA meaning tasters encountering a corked wine do not always . Realistically. corked.is imprecise. you should do the quality control work you do with any other wine contact surface.4.5% of our corks having TCA. “This is still such a hot potato. such as an unsanitary winery.when the cork has become infected by a mold by-product called 2.corky .24 hour soak tests with 20 people smelling cork every day . herbal or mint. But this turns ugly . Tasters accustomed to the ripe fruit flavors of wines from California.” David Forsythe. The adjectives used to describe corkiness can also describe other wine defects. The term itself .romance of wine. The incidence of corked wines may be no greater today than it was ten or twenty years ago but there is more attention being paid to this problem today. winemaker for Hogue Cellars in Washington State has gone from natural cork to synthetic. He comments.it is a wine contact surface. Cork is the final contact surface. Semantics As Forsythe points out. To use natural cork we have to accept 1-1. it’s closer to 3-5%.he’s only catching part of the tainted corks. As wine prices increase. making TCA one million times more potent than aromas such as citrus. “As well they should -. Chile and Australia may call a wine with a microbial whiff. The human nose is able to detect TCA at an astoundingly low 2-4 parts per trillion. To make matters worse. making TCA a scapegoat for other problems. the exact percentage of bad corks is hard to pinpoint. He states. earthy or “wet basement” aromas. that more TCA is leached out after the wine is bottled and the corks soak for a couple of months.” Forsythe believes that despite the quality control work he does . Winemakers pay a lot of attention to the inside of the press.

poor boiling conditions . The most insidious problem is when the taint is not obvious and the wine seems “off. A broker would buy from several different factories and ship to America through an agent who would sell to the cork companies. A problem in any one of those links . bad storage or sanitation conditions. The cell walls of cork contain a waxy material called suberin which makes cork impermeable to wine and air. The cork supplier doesn’t catch them either because they don’t have a system in place to do it.exposure to moisture. not buy that brand again. Even for professionals and experienced tasters. Anecdotal estimates from winemakers and sommeliers show the incidence is greater. Chris Howell.” Cork suppliers say that with the quality assurance they are doing. Each cell is a chamber of air which makes cork compressible and elastic. 1. Solid phase micro extraction machine (SPME) has the sensitivity to pick up TCA down to 1ppt. . “A farmer would harvest it and sell it to a prepardore who would boil it and sell it to a mom and pop company who would punch it and sell to several different factories. which will vastly improve their ability to screen for bad corks before they get into the bottle. 3%. But what happens to me is that I see some lots are worse than others and we don’t always catch them and that really bothers me. He explains. It can be detected at only 2ppt by some individuals while others do not smell it at 50ppt.agree.could result in a problem going into the bottle. it takes practice to learn to recognize corkiness – that’s when it’s obvious. Eklund states that one of the problems of the cork industry has been accountability – an inability to trace wood from where it was harvested to where it got to the market place.having no chance of recognizing cork taint – will taste a corked wine and whether it cost $10 or $100. it is certainly not more than that. “You hear numbers like 1%. winemaker at Cain states. On average.” Winemakers worry that they risk losing customers because the average wine consumer . 5%. cork taint is affecting between 1-2% (a bottle in every 16 cases) of the corks they are selling.” Cork Producers go High Tech Cork suppliers cite a newly developed analytical technique.5%. Structure of the Cork Industry Another difficulty is determining exactly where the cork taint originated since it can occur anywhere between the time it’s taken off the tree to when it’s stored at the winery prior to bottling.

” Hogue’s Forsythe is less sentimental towards natural cork. synthetic cork is absolutely the way to go. “It’s very good news for the winemaker and the consumer but it’s bad news for us because it’s sometimes difficult to buy cork that pass our standards.The Cork Quality Council. And because of natural cork’s monopoly. But we see buying a different closure as an opportunity to increase the quality of our wines by 5% -.we’re all equally handicapped.” Prior to this technology. “There were times when we stuck our head in the sand because everybody had the same problem -.a no-brainer if you can come up with the closure. boiled and inspected prior to processing. The market for synthetic corks is in the 10% range and growing which has gotten the attention of the producers in Portugal to address the problems: the way the wood is harvested. you’d be amazed at the level of variation of the human nose based on stress level. Bob Fithian of Scott Labs comments. has purchased a machine which they share. etc. dependable and it doesn’t taint the wine and going to synthetic corks would save us $100. It’s not the final answer. “Cork is a natural product and a traditional closure for wine.” Some winemakers contend that there has been no improvement since TCA was identified twenty years ago. “The companies are based in Portugal and they own the forests and the plants – it’s the fox watching the hen house. screening was done by soaking corks in white wine in baby food jars for 24 hours. Forsythe maintains.000. It’s uniform.” . many winemakers remain skeptical. Amorim and Cork Supply USA. We see SPME as an opportunity to crosscheck the human nose. But the development of synthetic alternatives represented a chance for someone to take market share. “In addition to being time consuming and expensive. brought in from the forest. it’s a tool to help us control our future. Eklund states the drawbacks.” Synthetics In spite of the cork company’s improved screening techniques and genuine effort to defeat TCA. The Kunde’s are a traditional grape-growing family and have been here for 100 years – we’re very careful about the idea of introducing something synthetic. “From a technician’s point of view.” But he sees a trade off he is not willing to accept. The wine was poured off and a panel smelled each for corkiness. Noyes recognizes the benefits of synthetic. made up of Scott Labs. It’s meant we’ve rejected more lots of cork. coffee intake. there appears to have been little driving force for change.

” Between the cost of a custom bottle and a minimum purchase of 56. We sell out every year and have a waiting list for people to get our wines. For red wines which benefit from bottle age. Screaming Eagle and Harlan.000 case Napa winery producing mostly ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon. few winemakers are experimenting with synthetic corks. long-aging reds. Synthetic corks can be advantageous for wines consumed within a year or two.000 screw caps – fifteen times what was . When the wine contracts it will suck the synthetic cork in again. He makes the analogy between barrel aging and bottle aging referring to the oxygen that the wine picks up in a barrel is very important to the aging process. defied this logic and bottled half (300 cases) of its 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with screw caps. Nonetheless. especially Altech corks which is a chopped up cork and glue composite. they shift from a preference for natural cork to synthetic. however. The announcement was made during the Napa Valley Wine Auction leading some to believe it was a publicity ploy. When wine is pushed beyond a natural cork (due to heat). Forsythe feels that using synthetic cork for red wines may necessitate changes in winemaking. With neighbors like Dalle Valle. Winemakers report that wines with synthetic corks tend to be tighter.An advantage synthetic cork has over natural cork relates to how it behaves under adverse conditions. But over the course of 8-10 months in the bottle. are the first thing beginning wine drinkers move on from and would seem to be an unlikely choice for expensive. General Manager of Plumpjack notes. when it cools back down. a 10. Screw caps on the other hand. Plumpjack. Do I give my wines more oxygen? Do I age them longer before they go in the bottle?” Screw Cap – Brave New Closure At least synthetic corks look like natural corks. The assumption is that because they form a hermetic seal. attempting to generate some publicity would be understandable but John Conover. A natural cork will leak before it will push and a synthetic will push but all the time it’s pushing it’s still protecting the wine because it’s not allowing oxygen to come into the headspace. I don’t need more publicity. “I think that process continues to go on in the bottle albeit at a much slower rate. it will inhale and pull oxygen back in to replace it. “We didn’t have to do this. which keeps the wine fresher. more reduced and a bit more closed. synthetic corks will function very differently from natural cork during long-term aging. One needs to look at one’s winemaking practices if you’re going to use a synthetic cork or a closure that doesn’t let oxygen in.

” Singleton says. Conover feels that the slight differences between cork and screw cap will be detectable for those with professional palates. One of the investors in the winery . They will bottle the ’98 Reserve in April with the same 50% in screw cap and have asked UC Davis’ Dr.” Conover adds.000.” Plumpjack hasn’t abandoned corks altogether. a wine shop with another restaurant and wine shop soon to open in San Francisco. There are two other producers I know of that are coming to market in the next six months with screw caps. “People have been talking about it for the last 18 years and no one wanted to be the first. this is a positive . “My opinion is that bottle aging doesn’t occur unless there is a considerable protection from oxygen. He cites an added benefit. aging reactions which are not dependent on oxygen . Plumpjack’s metal screw cap is a barrier which air cannot diffuse across.needed – the project cost over $100. the chemical reactions responsible for bottle aging are not dependent on oxygen. According to Singleton. “For the collectors. Therefore. The sommelier would taste the wine after they’d left and found that it was corked. the consumers were not turned off to wine or to this specific producer or were not thinking that we had stored the wine incorrectly.Gordon Getty of Getty Oil – also owns three restaurants. But this does not mean a screw cap will “freeze” a wine in place. but he doesn’t think the average consumer could discern the difference. Christian Butzke to conduct an annual independent study to find out is whether a screw cap will permit a wine to improve during bottle aging like a natural cork is believed to. an inn. Plumpjack’s move received a lot of attention and raises questions not only about the future of closures for age-worthy reds but about the extent that one producer and ultimately others may go to register their displeasure toward natural cork.white wines turning brown. Hopefully. So rather than saying slow contact is desirable. Two people would drink let’s say 1/3 of the bottle and leave the restaurant. reds taking on a more brickish appearance and oxidation of phenolic components making the wine smoother – will not occur. We considered these factors and decided that screw cap was the way to go.one of which is a greater percentage of bottles being sent back because of TCA. “Because we have these outlets. implying that both a screw cap (and a synthetic cork) will not interfere with bottle aging.they’d love the wines to age longer and eliminate what I think is a minimum of 10% TCA. we’re seeing a number of things happening . Conover says. I believe that slow contact may not be desirable.” . they still bottle 95% of their wines with corks but they think that that the screw cap is the future.

5L bottles – about 24 million corks.” Eklund comments. “The average wine consumer doesn’t perceive taint as a major issue with cork. the brain also processes non-sensory information. the better they understand why we did it. even if the aesthetics are not appealing. “Someone with less experience views this as a cost saving measure. screw caps can be a viable alternative. In addition to a wine’s sensory factors such as color and bouquet. within weeks after Plumpjack announced bottling 300 cases with a screw top closure. For example.” “It’s a good closure. Sutter Home’s marketing department was banking on the fact that the cork finish would elevate its image making it easier for its sales staff and wholesaler to sell the wine. Herwatt states.” Random Oxidation . the metal will expand but the glass is inert. It’s not a perfect system but if done right. He comments. A more subtle reason winemakers are hesitant to replace cork is due to the association between expensive wine and natural cork or jug wine and screw cap. knows how to identify it and knows that it’s a problem. With a temperature change. There is a part of the American soul that wants something traditional . it’s fun to talk about but I don’t think it’s going to be a major closure.Do Perceptions Matter? Plumpjack had to consider the marketing ramifications because screw caps could cheapen Plumpjack’s image. It would be far more difficult for a larger producer who relies heavily on marketing and working through the three-tier system. are they underestimating the cognitive effects of a screw cap? Conover admits that the screw cap takes some of the romance away but Plumpjack’s thinking is that the type of customer that purchases its wine has had experiences with cork taint. I can assure them that they won’t have a cork tainted bottle. While Plumpjack’s frustration with cork is understandable. The type of closure will activate stored or cognitive information which is very powerful in determining liking and explains why the same wine tastes better on a Tuscan hillside or out of fine glassware or with delicious food than out of a thick-rimmed bar glass or less appealing surroundings.that associates romance with pulling a cork. He adds. The biggest concern with cork for most people is getting the cork out without breaking it and resealing the bottle. switched from screw caps to natural corks for their 1. “Screw caps are not without their problems if you talk to the people that use them. We found that the more knowledgeable the consumer. Sutter Home in a less publicized move.

Which makes it difficult to predict that all twelve bottles in a case of wine will age the same – it’s likely that they won’t. The resistance to change at the high is two fold: one is the fear that no one producer wants to break rank and be the first to do it. And there is also something comforting about a natural product like wine being stoppered with a piece of tree bark. its effects have not been studied. He adds. Alternative closures will become more common according to how reliably the cork industry can produce a taint-free product. where natural cork plays a more important aesthetic role. He says.some bottles turn brown more quickly than others. The uncertainty is at the high end. nobody can accurately predict how a wine is going to age. there will be reluctance among collectors to invest in wines without natural cork.” Conclusion Aesthetics do matter.” Butzke claims that because of the inherent variability of a natural product like cork.The problem with discussing the relative merits of alternative closures is that in spite of natural cork’s longevity. for inexpensive wines. With a wide range in the amount of oxygen that comes through the cork into the wine – what is called random oxygen . . any wine lover who enjoys admiring the cork after removing it from the bottle will agree. Is eliminating cork taint worth diminishing the aesthetics of wine? Yes. Only time – in the bottle . Secondly. until there is more data on how synthetics and screw caps perform. there will be natural difference between individual corks. people have opinions and imagine how things work but there is no research.will tell. “As with so many things about cork. Butzke feels that a lot of assumptions have been made about cork as a closure including the breathing. “Just as with any piece of wood.

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