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March (No. 494)


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A lifetime of pleasure? No problem

Tim White

You can't say that French winemakers don't have a sense of humour. At least not the Perrin brothers of Château de Beaucastel fame. This from the back label of their 2002 La Vieille Ferme Lasira Costières de Nîmes red: (75% Syrah, 25% Grenache, 0% Cork). The wine, you see, is screw capped.

Not surprisingly for a reductively made - tank fermented - wine, made from grape varieties with tendencies towards reduction, which has then been sealed with a screw cap, the wine smells, well, a bit reductive. As indeed it might well do even if it were sealed under cork. Not that it really mattered though because with a bit of air the reductive ponginess blew off and out of it came spicy orange peel, brandied cherries, gentle nutmeg and pepper. A delicious little red, in fact, and at $15-17 a bottle, a bargain to boot.

Not quite so cheap was a bottle of 1895 Château d'Yquem opened during 'The Red Dinner' at Melbourne's Vue de Monde restaurant, along with a 1945 Lafite Rothschild and 1945 Moet & Chandon. Seats at the dinner cost $1500 a pop.

The Yquem had been sourced out of the UK and had been assessed in the late '80s as being in perfect condition by none other than the legendary Michael Broadbent MW. It had been recorked at the Château.
Unfortunately - and I think you can guess what's coming - when it was broached on the night the wine was horrendously corked: "So far gone it wasn't funny," a Vue de Monde spokesperson informed me after the event. Needless to say the taint didn't blow off with air, but fortunately the restaurant had a 1967 to replace it.

A year on from my last Carte Blanche column on closures and I can't say that I see much of an improvement in the incidence - absence - of cork taint. And I'm not just talking about ancient bottles of Sauternes. What I have observed is a decrease in TCA and random oxidation issues in white wines as a result of the increased adoption of the screw-cap closure across a range of wine styles. Despite what some critics of the screw cap harp on about - reduction - it causes nothing like the negative and irredeemable influences of tainted cork. Except for seriously reduced wines there's nothing that a little air doesn't improve; the same can certainly not be said of even moderately TCA'd wines which only deteriorate in glass.

On the cork positive side - technical cork positive side - the Sabaté Diam (nee Diamond) continues to impress. I've still yet to encounter TCA in any wine sealed with the closure. Nor any indications of oxidation in wines which have enjoyed a longer time (for these purposes one year or above) under the closure. With modifications having taken place to the amount of elastopolyer used to coat the Diam the issue of flaring appears to have been resolved as well.

So I've seen no signs of wine travel in recently-bottled reds. And I remain of the view that the Diam is the most consistent technical cork (and cork) performer I've come across in more than 10 years of formal tastings.

So to a few small tastings that I conducted for the purposes of this article to compare different closures. The first was set up to compare Stelvin and Diam-sealed bottles of 2004 Murray Darling Collection 'A Murray Cod Called Bruce' Vermentino (how's that for obscure and alternative). Not having a slew of modern Vermentinos to put together in a line-up I opted for other non-aromatic whites such as Verdelhos, unwooded Chardonnays, Colombard-Chardonnays etc. Only one of the non-Vermentinos was sealed with a cork - and it turned out to be a good one - the rest were screw capped. There were only 14 wines in the line-up.

To cut a long story short these are the final notes before I unmasked the wines: "I reckon 3, 10, 11 and 12 are the same with 3 and 10 showing the least fruit on the nose. And presumably are a pair, along with 11 and 12. Actually the palates of 3 and 10 are a bit better than those of 11 and 12." I scored all the wines identically and it was clear that they were the same wines, ie. closure consistency. Whoo hoo!

Another tiny tasting I undertook was that of six bottles of 2003 Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon. Two under cork (Amorim), two under Diam, two under screw cap (Auscap). Again the screw cap and Diam performed remarkably similarly even after more than a year in bottle, although one of the Diams appeared a little more developed on the palate. Both the wines sealed with natural cork were flatter, although neither were musty.

As most winemakers will know McWilliams have a significant investment in wine and money in the cellaring program it runs for its Elizabeth and Lovedale Semillons. It's not just TCA in natural cork which is an issue but random oxidation, too. As McWilliams chief winemaker, Martin Cooper, told me: "We've made a huge investment in the stock and we're finding that significant volumes of wines are lost before they even go to market, after we've done our colour sorting." The issue came particularly to a head with the 35% loss of the Lovedale '99. We're talking thousands of cases in this particular Instance, but according to Cooper the standard is around 10%, although sometimes in the range of 15-20%.

It was the issue of the '99 Lovedale loss that really got everyone at McWilliams - family, CEO Kevin McLintock and the winemaking team - tuned seriously to screw cap. And so McWilliams is about to embark on significant closure trial - as Cooper said: "We're committing to a big, big trial" - evaluating the latest wadding types. This work is above and beyond what the company has already conducted.

I also asked Cooper about other issues that the screw cap cynics bring up, such as the matter of "leakers". 'Right at the very start we had some problems with leakage,' admitted Cooper, "but as my dad used to say there's an engineering solution to everything. Now the torques are set we have don't have any problem."
I can honestly say that I have not received or seen a single "leaker" in well over a year and I've tasted hundreds and hundreds of wines under screw cap in that period.

And what of reduction? "As Jim Brayne has said to me before," Cooper continues, "We always marvel at the best wines under cork, but they're often slightly reduced anyway." Cooper said he and Brayne advocate that old Hunter Semillon should be decanted anyway.

In the end, observes Cooper, "What's a minute of problem for a lifetime of pleasure?" Especially when it's a once-in-a-lifetime wine: like an 1895 Yquem.

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