Growing-up in the 1980’s & 1990’s in the most traditional wine region in the world, Burgundy, I would never have believed that, one day, I would move to South Africa -let alone that I would subsequently proceed to only use screw caps when bottling my own wines…! It would take a hell of a lot of something to affect such a revolution in my thinking. In hind-sight, my opposition to screw caps was in fact purely a prejudice -and moving to South Africa at the exact time that Mandela became President, it seemed to me an apt time to look past prejudices!
For the first decade I lived in the Cape, so from 1994 onwards, I bottled my wines using traditional cork. A decade filled way too often with woeful (and very costly) experiences with corporate cork suppliers as impermeable to taking responsibility for faults and liability for their products as Big Tobacco at the time. Very low industry quality control standards, blatant cork taint from TCA infection, insidious ‘cork affection’ (i.e. same symptoms of cork taint but without the obvious mouldy cardboard smell, leading the consumer to believe it was the wine which was inferior), random oxidation, inconsistency from one bottle to the next, etc. After several near-fatal experiences, I tried spreading the risk by using 3 suppliers per bottling, only to be confronted by the same deny-all, blocking tactic from a supplier when their 1/3 of a bottling was faulty. It was always the wine’s fault (despite the other 2/3 being fine), never the cork producer. In those days, they had no competition. If you didn’t like corks, what other options were there? Their arrogance was heroic, but options minimal. Standards (moral and qualitatively, equally) appalling. Plastic corks made a foray about then, but the wines aged prematurely. Then, in 1999, at a point where I had lost significant amounts of money due to QC issues around product recalls and lost production due entirely to faulty corks, I had an experience which tipped my prejudices about wine closures right into the bin.
Yalumba Winery, from the Barossa Valley in Australia, owned by the remarkable Hill-Smith Family, which I had long admired, was holding an incredible set of events to mark their 150th year celebrations. The oldest family-owned winery in Australia and one of the leaders in the revolution which had occurred in transforming their industry into world leaders and to break-down the monopoly of European wines in all the traditional wine markets of the world. Being the only person from South Africa to be invited, I duly jumped onto a plane and headed to the Barossa. Among the many events and festivities featured a tasting of historic proportions; testimony to the incredible wine culture of Robert Hill-Smith, proprietor of Yalumba, as much as to his immense generosity. From the family vault came a tasting of over a century of wines, each decade representing a theme, drawn from the finest examples in the world of wine. The 1880’s decade, a tasting of museum stocks of Muscats and fortified wines from Yalumba and various greats across Australia, from the Barsossa in South Australia, to Rutherglen in Victoria. The 1960’s decade -the greats of Bordeaux, including various Grand Cru Classes, from the legendary 1961 vintage. This for 200+ guests! The 1970’s was a comparative tasting of Eden Valley Riesling from the famed Pewsey Vale Estate (belonging to the Hill-Smith Family), pitting the same wines under cork and screwcap -the 1976 vintage being Australia’s first ever commercial bottling of premium wine under screw cap. To my immense shock, the screwcap version still reflected varietal expression of Riesling, the wine was still in one piece, though aged, it was alive and well. The version under cork was gone; over the hill, finished. I tasted a second bottle and a third. Same result. A rather significant light went on in my brain and a realisation that all I had believed about screw caps was wrong -including, and especially, that wines could not age.
Thereafter followed an immense period of research on my behalf, including a trip to New Zealand to meet the greatly respected Michael Brajkowich of Kumeu River Wines, near Auckland, authority on screw cap closures. He was one of the pre-eminent experts on the science behind the usage of screw caps (academically and with all prejudice removed), having written an extraordinary thesis for his Master of Wine, and had adapted his production entirely to screw cap. He very generously shared his research and his MW with me and allowed me to taste various vintages with him and answered, without reserve, all of my many questions.
Then came another seminal moment -the legendary Head Winemaker Paul Pontallier from Chateau Margaux- held a Press Tasting in London. A blind tasting where all professionals present were asked to taste wine A and wine B and to publicly state their preference. The result was an overbearing, almost unanimous, preference of the wine which was…. bottled under screw cap! A 10-year-old bottling, pitting the best corks available to Chateau Margaux, against screw cap. An utter shock to the assembled experts, party all to the collective decision. When questioned if this result implied that Chateau Margaux would be switching production to screw cap, Paul Pontallier responded simply “we will continue the experiment for 30 years and after 30 years if the result is the same, we will use whichever is the best closure.”
The matter of longevity was no longer an issue for me; just a red herring thrown-up by the cork industry as a smoke screen. I had also by now been bottling in both screw cap and cork, side by side the same wines, for several years, to build-up my own comparison. A clear pattern was emerging.
By 2008, I had enough bottlings of my own, research across the wine planet and increasing positive experience with screw caps to get to a watershed point in time. I assembled my team and questioned them about what could possibly be a monumental decision. I asked them to eliminate any emotion or any prejudice from their analysis or deliberation but to answer, freely and independently, each vote weighing equally, which wine closure would guarantee that our wine would reach the end-consumer in the most pure, faithful state, as we intended, without impact on quality or style ? The vote was not a majority -it was unanimous; screw cap 11 – cork 0.
From vintage 2008 until today, every single wine we have produced has been bottled in screw cap. Every bottle has been cork-taint-free, delivered in the most faithful state, in bottle as it was made in our vineyards and in our winery. No excuses, no doubt. If you don’t like the wine, it’s the wine. If you like the wine, it’s not the closure…
I remember the first bottle of our Chenin Blanc under screw cap I served at my Father’s table (I’m 4th generation in the wine industry, my Father 3rd, before me). “Get that monstrosity off my table” he snarled… “I will not drink from it”. My younger sisters finding it, contrarily, highly practical and particularly user-friendly. I suspect the generational gap was a major factor, as I suspect that, over time, resistance to screw caps will continue to diminish -in fact I barely encounter any dissenting attitudes over a decade later, though I understand them and respect them on the now rare occasions that I do. Indeed, several years later, my father kept quiet when I reintroduced screw caps at his table -and today he even buys wines himself under screw cap, often.
Cork is a very successful 400+ year old technology. It has served us very well. It still does, in many respects. Though, if pure 4 century-old tradition is what you crave, you’ll feel comforted to know the ‘truth’ that the world is flat -and that if you drown when held under water unremittingly, you are in fact not a Witch…
Perhaps it is time to keep an open mind? I for one have arrived at that conclusion, against all expectations, when arriving in South Africa 25 years ago. If anyone refuses to drink my wine today because it is bottled in what I believe to be the single best closure, to consistently guarantee quality and style, in every bottle, every time, then I certainly shall not lose any sleep.
The world is round, and life goes on!