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Cork-conundrum

South African winemakers still stuck in the cork conundrum: why?

Over the past decade, the cork industry has cleaned up its act. Levels of taint are less now than they were 15 years ago when you could comfortably write off one bottle in every case on account of the corks. There are also new products on the market. However, reducing contamination only partially addresses the problem of using the bark of a tree to seal a bottle. So what’s the lowdown on the cork conundrum, asks leading SA wine judge, consultant and writer, Michael Fridjohn?

The world-wide sales of aluminium screw top wine closures have grown at least tenfold in the past decade and now total some five billion annually. Despite this, there are still some pockets of fundamentalist resistance. Those most attached to the idea of the veracity of ancient scripture (when it comes to cork versus screwcaps) are to be found in the United States, China, France, Italy, Spain – and, of course, South Africa.

Though the Cape has seen a fairly extensive acceptance of screwcaps when it comes to white wines, especially for those where the fruit is most fragile (unwooded whites, most notably sauvignon blanc and riesling), surprisingly few premium reds come to market under this modern, effective and taint-free closure.

Producers like to pretend that they are constrained by consumer prejudice, though there are indications that their own lack of conviction plays a key role. In Australia – where the swing to screwcaps was driven by an industry-wide initiative – transformation was almost immediate and fairly complete. It requires a real effort to find cork-closed wines amongst Antipodean current releases. When you do come across the occasional example, it is generally a premium wine with strong export sales.

There can be no other industry in the world which relies on seriously outdated technology for the final component in its production process – and certainly none where a tried-and-tested modern alternative is available more cheaply and with a proven better performance. This says a great deal about the world of wine, its predilection for anachronism (at least in traditional production and consumption areas), its essential fundamentalism.

Practising believers in Judeo-Christian societies like to ridicule radical Islam for the apparent irrationality with which it treats its scriptures as God-given truth. Generally their own attitude to the Bible is that it serves as a guide – but that it is also open to interpretation. For example, they disregard Old Testament injunctions about slave ownership, ritual stonings, and the retaliatory removal of eyes and teeth. They pride themselves on their willingness to distinguish between what may have been necessary to regulate society a few thousand years ago, and which approach is more appropriate in the modern world.

When it comes to wine, however, a blanket exemption seems to apply (and when it comes to wine closures, they are positively flat-earth in the application of their belief systems). This may be because most consumers appear to view winemaking as a kind of Amish home industry. I know producers in Burgundy who have long kept from sight their modern bottling and packaging lines. Visitors get the guided tour of the cob-webbed cellars, the ancient fermenters, the hand-crafted look and feel. Then, a bit like the 1950s sex education books which avoided the uncomfortable details (“mommy and daddy loved each other very much and then some time later you were born”) the visit ends without any explanation about how the wine gets from vat to bottle. When you ask why they maintain this very partial communication, you are told that its important to retain the romance (“it’s what wine drinkers want, after all.”)

I’m not sure that this is what South African consumers really prefer: yes, we like the idea of the unhurried pace of the wine farm lifestyle, we like to think of the winemaker as an artist rather than a scientist. We are not frightened off by stainless steel tanks and by mechanical sorting tables. We expect wineries to be spotlessly clean and we don’t believe that every bottle is filled by hand. In short, we accept that wine is made in a food factory and that the rules which govern its production should be as rigorous as for anything we expect to put into our mouths. So what is so special about the bark of the cork oak that it enjoys complete exemption from these criteria?….

Daily Maverick: Read the full article

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