Last Friday, I posted about an informal tasting of wines finished with alternative closures at a MW seminar in Yountville. Given how many people seem to be interested in this topic, I’m seizing the spotlight opportunity to expand on the original post.
The tasting and the original article seemed innocuous to me because it didn’t seem to cover any new ground. I thought that, given the widespread use of synthetic closures in wine production, most people in the business would know a lot about synthetic corks, screw caps and glass stoppers, and that my 263-word blurb with very little commentary would not garner any interest.
Yet, a review of last week’s traffic data for this blog indicates that many people in the wine business have a very keen interest in synthetic closures. I think that, at some level, the industry is struggling with bringing a consistent product to market while trying to overcome consumer’s beliefs about the packaging.
There is, undoubtedly, a perception in the minds of wine consumers of all strata that synthetic closures, such as extruded and molded corks, mean the wine is “cheap”. Screw caps have had a similar uphill battle because they conjure up associations of offerings like Thunderbird. The success of New Zealand wines has helped many to overcome that notion. A similar PR challenge faces DIAM corks as particulate corks have, historically, also been the closure of choice for lower-priced, ready-to-drink wines.
I can’t say that the public’s perceptions are entirely unfounded. The cost-per-unit breakdown somewhat validates the notion that lower priced wines would have synthetic closures. A recent inquiry indicates that synthetic corks tend to run around 15 cents each, DIAM corks are about 15-20 cents each and natural (whole) cork closures can run upwards of $1.10 to $1.25 each – depending on length and grade. Stelvin closures cost around one (1) cent per unit, but the machinery necessary to run the bottling costs in the tens of thousands of dollars (my understanding is that Alcan Packaging may offer some appealing incentives to encourage adaptation – and increase its foothold).
Reputation, perception and cost of these products aside, the key information everyone reading my Friday post was seeking was the performance of these closures. My bet is that, like me, those who stopped by to read my piece wanted to know what were the differences between the wines finished with the different closures and which closure was on the favorite wine. This is key industry information and I can’t blame people for being hungry for it.
As I mentioned in my last post, the critical performance parameter in assessing the integrity and functionality of synthetic closures (as measured in a controlled laboratory setting) is oxygen ingress. Often, this is compared to that of natural cork. It has been suggested, however, that a properly produced and functioning cork does not allow any ingress of oxygen (follow-up article here) at any constant rate. Rather, it is proposed that natural cork releases a limited amount of oxygen contained in its cells. This is in contrast to the performance of synthetic closures which have been shown to have a constant rate of oxygen ingress.
Finally, the results of the MW tasting seem to confirm the previously published reports of foam-lined screw caps having the lowest oxygen ingress. This is based on the aromas and flavors of the wines tasted. At one point, the low rate of oxygen ingress had been problematic for some wines closed with a screw cap as those had a tendency towards reductive aromas. This has largely been addressed and wines sealed with a screw cap, for the most part, do not have these reductive problems.
What has not been ascertained, however, is what cellaring prospects face screw cap-sealed wines. Just recently, at a Monterey tasting room I was told by the person behind the counter that the southern Monterey cabernet being poured (and closed with a Stelvin) needed about a year or rest and that this was quite feasible since ‘screw caps perform similar to cork in the cellar’.
Even if the scientific foundation of the differences in the long-term performance of synthetic versus natural closures is not yet entirely understood, the industry should be honest with itself, and its consumers, about why it uses synthetic closures. I can understand that the desire to avoid flaws resulting from poorly produced or failing corks is part of the reason. But I don’t think it is the main reason.
While instrumental to garnering consumer acceptance, this honesty may not be a tenable proposition for all involved. It would require producers to stand side-by-side with the admissions that their wines closed with synthetic closures are: 1) not ‘built” for ageing, 2) will not evolve gracefully because of both their constitution and the closure used, and 3) are intended for immediate consumption only. Reconciling those facts with the asking price may be awkward in some cases.
That a vast majority of wines purchased today are consumed within a few days (if not hours) of purchase is the fundamental driving force of these three facts above. This is the truth of the marketplace and of the country’s wine culture.
We may have a disconnect between how people consume wines and what they imagine wine to be: a refined drink, a hallmark of sophistication and possibly a status symbol as well as something with inherent long-term ageing potential. I don’t know if most of the public makes a connection between closure type and cellaring potential. The association of alternative closures with lower quality of wines may be indicative that they do.
The public deserves some reliable knowledge to guide their selection and expectations of wines finished with different closures. This also applies to those producers who want to finish their wines with a natural cork in order to convey that their wines are finer or more age-worthy.
The key to consumer acceptance of synthetic closures of all types hinges on education. The performance of the closure should be matched to the build (and potential lifespan) of the wine and the reasons for the match should be conveyed to the consumer in no uncertain terms along with the pitfalls of each closure – be that TCA taint, rapid oxidation or no significant longevity in the bottle.
The public could benefit from some closure education. By “education” I do not mean “building awareness”. The former helps ensure the immediate gratification of securing market share. The latter is geared towards on long-term consumer empowerment. Education requires both an effort on the part of the instructor and the receptiveness of the audience. Admittedly, it is far easier to build awareness rather than to educate. So, I’m not saying this is going to be an easy task, but “easy” is what gave us the current economic troubles.
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