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March (No. 494)

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Screw caps: the evidence in the glass

Tyson Stelzer

It’s not the sort of risk that you see every day in the wine industry. But today is 12 November 2004, day two of the First International Screw Cap Symposium in New Zealand. And the organisers have pulled one very bold move in front of one very large audience.

Some 260 delegates are assembled in Marlborough, in the only venue large enough to accommodate such a crowd, the local basketball stadium. They are here on behalf of the wine industries of New Zealand, Australia, the United States, France, Italy, Austria, The United Kingdom, Scotland, Chile, South Africa and Ireland.

Television cameras record the evidence. Radio station microphones point expectantly. Camera flashes fire. Journalist’s pens are poised. The eyes and ears of the wine world await the next twist in the story of the screw cap.

It’s not the time to risk something going wrong.

It’s the second structured wine tasting of the symposium, 2000 glasses, 260 delegates each poured a double-blind sample of each of eight wines. Not one of them has any idea of what those wines might be.

Now, if it were up to me to choose the wines, I know precisely what I would be doing. I would be choosing the sure-fire winners. The lay-down-misere, blue-chip, show-stopper, blow-your-socks-off wines to convince every one of those 260 people once and for all that screw caps are the closure of choice for the great wines of the world.

And the last thing in the world that I would dream of doing would be to lead the tasting with the very wine that has been repeatedly named by the media, more than any other, as highlighting a major problem with screw caps.

But the organisers of the International Screw Cap Symposium are not unfamiliar with risks. They have, after all, led the wine world in what is emerging to be the most radical change in closure technology in hundreds of years. And so it is, without any apprehension, the 2001 Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc is served as the very first wine of the structured tasting.

On its release, this wine was sent to critics under both cork and screw cap, to demonstrate the superiority of the screw cap. In response, however, it received widely-published criticism, claiming that the screw-capped version “showed signs of oxidation and excessive forward development, whereas the cork-sealed wine was deemed to be young, fresh and relatively underdeveloped,” (Performing Seals, Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine, Oct/Nov 2003).

Three years later, and the wine is again on the table. 260 critics are about to compare it under both closures. Among them is the writer who first condemned it.

It’s the time of reckoning. The speaker calls for comments from the floor about the two wines. The response is that the first wine is fresh and balanced while the second shows “exaggerated development.” Second question: Does anyone see any reductive characters in the first wine? Just four people. Second wine? Four again. The wines are revealed. The first is the screw cap. The second, showing “exaggerated development,” is the cork.

A calculated risk. A powerful statement.

The premise of the symposium organisers was this: If the wine had been oxidised and developed under screw cap to start with, it would certainly have looked at least as bad three years later, and probably much worse. If it did not look faulty now, it must never have been faulty to start with, a premise which the organisers have themselves upheld all along.

Debates, scepticism and scientific reasoning aside, it is ultimately what is in the glass that speaks the most for the performance of any wine closure. And at the International Screw Cap Symposium, the wines in the glasses certainly spoke loudly.

NOTE: The complete article can be found in the March issue of The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker.



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