To Cork or Not to Cork, that is The Question
Whether you’re newly appreciative of wine, or interested in starting your own a wine cellar (anything more than 4 bottles is a cellar, trust me) choosing the right bottle can be just as important as what’s inside. Here is a quick run-down on the importance of bottle stoppers and aging wine.
Can Corks Seal a Wine’s Fate?
It seems that everything tastes better with a little bit of age. The ripest fruit, the best stinky cheese, banana bread and chocolate cake always — always tastes better the second day. Julia Child always recommended eating her Bouef Bourgignon the next day, and my onion soup is definitely better the next day. Wine is much the same, but over a far longer time frame.
In 2009 An “addictive” bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet was opened to much fanfare and it was described with notes of “truffles and caramel”. While this bottle was created shortly after the Battle of Waterloo, even wines bottled just a couple years ago benefit from resting and aging, even if it’s not for nearly a century.
Most wine needs some aging to taste their best. Winemakers know this, and controlling the aging process includes decisions about how they bottle up their product. The exceptions to these well aged wines are the fantastic Beaujolais Nouveau wines honored traditionally on the 3rd Thursday of November every year with festivals and great fanfare in France, released mere weeks after the wine harvest.
Aging and Air
One aspect of aging has to do with the reaction of fruit acids with the alcohol. This process reduces sourness in the wine, but it’s really only important for very tart wines, the ones coming from cold climates.
Varying degrees of oxidation results in various types of wine, and the more oxidation, the nuttier and deeper the aroma. While sherry benefits from this, your chablis will be rather disgusting if treated in this manner.
The oxidation process is key to a wine’s proper aging, and the small amount of oxygen permitted by the cork or closure eliminates any trace negative compounds. Oxidation also reacts with the grapes to stabilize the pigments in red wine.
The way a bottle is sealed directly affects how much oxygen passes into the wine as time passes, and this directly affects the aging trajectory and determines when that wine will be at its “best” after it’s gone from barrel to bottle.
Would Patsy Put a cork in it?
There are three major closure options available: natural cork and technical cork, its low budget brother made of cork particles, the screw cap and synthetic corks. The appearance and use of natural cork closures began about 250 years ago, displacing the oiled rags and wooden plugs that had previously been used to seal bottles. It created the possibility of aging and transporting wine in bottles. Until 20 years ago natural corks were pretty much the only option for quality wine. Natural cork is produced from the bark of the aptly named ‘cork oak tree’, prevelant throughout Southern Europe and North Africa, and as beautiful as they are useful. Portugal and Spain produce most of the corks you’re popping from your bottles of booze.
The annual production produced from the cork forests of the world. by Amorim
Plastic – To Be, or Not To Be… That is The Other Question.
Synthetic corks are made from polyethylene, the same stuff as milk bottles and plastic pipes. After years of research and development, these corks now perform nearly the same as the natural version with three exceptions: they have no taint, they let in a bit more oxygen and they are very consistent in oxygen transmission – crucial to the oxidation process.
Their consistency is a major selling point to winemakers because the wine will have a predictable taste at various points in time. In fact, winemakers can tweak the oxidation rate of their wine by choosing from a range of synthetic corks with different rates of known oxygen transmission.
We can still mock our beloved screwcaps, but maybe Boon’s Farm was on to something. improvements in their technology have produced better quality liners on these caps, providing more consistency and efficiency for winemakers. Many high street shops are proudly displaying screw capped, good quality wines now, and for that casual bottle in the park, it’s not to be sniffed at any longer. We’re all benefiting from the fact that screwcaps, being manufactured, are also very consistent.
But I really Need Closure! What’s the Best?
You know what? It all works! Performance of the manufactured closures made with 21st century technology, is excellent. Generally they approximate the expectations and performances of natural cork, thanks to advancing technology.
For the regular wine you might purchase for dinner this weekend or find on sale to keep for the holidays, any of these closures are perfectly fine, and we’re benefitting from the extra protection from any contaminants. In fact, your choice is more a matter of preference for simply opening the bottle. Do you want the convenience of twisting off the cap, or do you want the ceremony of removing the cork?
For long aging however, the only closure with an adequately long track record so far is natural cork and on any investment wine, that is the closure to choose — so far. As the long-term evaluations of synthetics and screw caps provide more data as time passes it will be possible to judge their suitability for extended aging, such as more than ten years.
Over centuries, winemakers have consistently taken advantage of new technology to improve their product, from oak barrels to bottles to modern crushing and pressing equipment and fancy things like micro-oxygenation. While manufactured and synthetic closures have some key advantages, it is proving difficult to displace natural cork due to its centuries-old tradition and its’ bit of glamour, albeit with a few problems, and its connection to the natural process.
So, you can now, relatively confidently, buy that screw-capped bottle of wine, if you can’t find your corkscrew on moving day!