For many the reassuring and familiar noise of a cork popping out of bottle is an almost Pavlovian signal to the anticipated pleasure of the glass of wine that will follow. But then that all started to change - as the ripping sound of a breaking screw cap became an increasingly familiar noise as a prelude to a glass of wine. Why has this happened and has the romance of wine been affected along the way?
For centuries the only method used for stoppering a wine bottle was with a cork. So much so that it became the very symbol of wine itself and with it the often prolonged ceremony and theatre of opening the bottle with a cork screw and sniffing the cork to see if it was clean. But then along came the villain in the piece that changed both the practicality and cost of this most traditional of closures. And that “crook” was a little mould which if left in the finished cork made the wine smell and taste unpleasant – a sort of dank and musty smell and taste with all the fruit flavour stripped out. It is called, scientifically, Trichloroanisole
Trichloroanisole – or TCA as it is often referred to – is a bi-product from a naturally occurring airborne mould which is sometimes found in the pores of the cork bark. This tree is the natural source for traditional cork and during its processing this mould should be eradicated. However, it can sometimes be very stubborn and quickly taints any wine it comes into contact with. But I must stress that it is in no way harmful, just unpleasant – and also has the capacity to spoil that prized bottle you have been keeping for a special occasion. And I am afraid to report that cheaper bottles of wine with poorer quality corks are more prone to this issue.
Over time the industry has looked at many options to counter this problem. Successful cork substitutes have been developed such as plastic corks. Some of these look very realistic, and the quality has improved significantly in recent years. In the same period, the Diam® and Altec® stopper has become increasingly used – especially for more everyday wines. These are made from a ground cork amalgam, which is treated so that there cannot be any cork taint.
And a few producers are using the elegant glass stoppers, which I feel look really good, but unfortunately – for now – are rather expensive.
But undoubtedly the greatest revolution has been in the development of screw cap closures. These metal capsules are completely air tight and have the added advantage of being easy to open – not least in the middle of a field on a picnic when you have forgotten your cork screw! Also you can fill the bottle right up to the top with wine as you do not need to leave a “pressure gap” space in the neck of the bottle which you do when you push in a cork.
However, for some traditional wine drinkers the imagery of the screw cap has been a problem for them, which I can appreciate to a degree. The very ceremony of opening and sniffing the cork; then approving the wine, is part of the overall pleasure for some. And for the fine wine collector, who cellar their wine and want to enjoy the pleasures of mature wine, there is still some question mark over the ability of screw cap to support this extended maturation process.
But if you do have some concerns maybe I could leave you with this thought – some of the most valuable and collectable beverages in the world are rare and old bottles of (malt) Scotch whisky – and virtually all of these are sealed with a screw cap. In addition, some of the most luxurious olive oils are similarly screw capped.
But let’s finish by sparing a thought for the poor old Sommelier – has their role and future diminished, maybe even threatened, by the swing towards screw cap closures? What about the service and theatre they provide?
From a purely personal perspective over the years I have been on the receiving end of too many corked bottles for my liking and don’t see why any of us should have to have an occasion spoiled and pocket dented by a problem which does have a solution. Which leads nicely into my September Jarrold wine selection recommendations.
This is a lovely time of the year as we pass through the shoreline between summer and autumn and with seasonal foods in mind here is a selection I would happily pour through the month – and I have gone slightly off piste to showcase some of the more unusual offerings in the Jarrold Wine Bar and Deli...