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If the cork fits

There’s an increasing amount of evidence that when it comes to sealing wine, corks are – well – a lot of dead wood, argues one of SA’s leading wine authorities, judge and journalist, Michael Fridjhon.

CORKS were the best way of sealing a wine bottle in an era before space travel, the internet and flushing loos. They were so good for so long that no one seriously contemplated an alternative. However, they’re not perfect, and their defects are not as easily dismissed as the cork producers would have us believe.

Firstly, they are inconsistent. From the very same batch of corks, some will admit virtually no oxygen, while others are as porous as a sponge. This issue – known as random or sporadic oxidation – means that they fail in the one function for which they were originally intended – which is to keep the wine from spoiling through uncontrolled exposure to air.

Secondly, they are prone to tainting the wine. Wine producers, conscious of the fact that corkiness is what has alerted retailers to cork’s shortcomings as a closure, have brought considerable pressure to bear on their suppliers. Despite this, contamination remains an issue.

In fact, to take a slightly uncharitable view of the current situation – it is clear that only once alternative closures started to gain market share did the cork producers begin addressing the question of taint.

Finally, corks have a limited shelf life. We like to think of them as immortal – or at least as age-worthy as the wine they’re meant to protect. The truth is that, over time, they saturate with wine. Skilled sommeliers can ease an elderly cork from a bottle, and, armed with funnels, filters and prongs, they can pretty much open, decant and serve century old collectables.

However, the fact remains that corks become less substantial and more like old Roquefort the longer they lie in contact with the wine.

For the better part of the past two decades we’ve known that screwcaps or stelvin do a much better job.

They offer a choice of near perfect hermetic seals, as well as finely tweaked controlled oxidation. Originally they didn’t look pretty, but nowadays they come with long capsule-like sheaths so that the bottle looks as it did in the golden days of cork.

True, winemakers have had to learn how to manage a closure that really does not allow the ingress of oxygen, and not all so far have succeeded. But this is a little like blaming a bottle manufacturer for what goes wrong with a wine that has been poorly prepared for the bottling line.

The issues of reduction and bound sulphur – the preferred complaint of the cork lobby – are little more than a red herring: the vinous equivalent of blaming the car for the bad driver who crashed it. The very fact that the cork producers have leapt onto the reduction bandwagon is an indication of their desperation. If you can’t blame the equipment, fault the operator.

Of course this has become a multi-million rand game, with the cork companies investing heavily in wining, dining and schmaltzing wine hacks…..

The Daily Maverick: Read the full article

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