By Charles B. Rubinstein
“The soft extractive note of an aged cork being withdrawn
has the true sound of a man opening his heart”
William Samuel Benwell, Journey to Wine in Victoria
I don’t think we will ever see homage to a screw cap analogous to the homage penned by Benwell to a cork in the quote at the head of this column, but that’s not stopping the movement towards screw caps as wine bottle closures. New Zealand is undoubtedly a leader in this regard. Many of its Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs are being bottled with screw caps. One Old World winery owner who is a strong proponent of screw caps replacing cork is Michel Laroche, formally the head of Domaine Laroche in Chablis and now a member of the directors of AdVini a company owning seven wineries in France including Domaine Laroche. Monsieur Laroche was in New York City last week to present a reprise of a wine tasting previously done in March 2007 pitting screw caps against cork closures. The tasting was held for the Wine Media Guild, an organization of professional wine communicators, at their monthly luncheon at Felidia in New York City.
It was actually the third time Monsieur Laroche had presented such a tasting in New York City. The first was in May 2005 at Alain Ducasse for a group of wine writers and sommeliers and the second and third, in 2007 and 2011, for the members of the Wine Media Guild. Each pair of wines in the tastings was drawn from the same tank on the same day. One of the wines of each pair was bottled with a cork and the other was bottled with a screw cap. The 2005 tasting contained bottles of Domaine Laroche Chablis from the 2002 vintage including Premier Crus and Grand Crus served blind. As tasters our task in 2005 was to judge whether there was a recognizable difference between the wines in each pair and decide which was preferred. The consensus was that there was a recognizable difference and there was no clear-cut preference, but there was a slight edge favoring the screw cap wines. As a group the screw cap wines tasted fresher. The wines bottled with cork were more evolved.
The 2011 tasting at Felidia was a reprise of the 2007 tasting. Ten wines were tasted. There were two bottles of each wine — one with a cork closure and one with an alternate closure: screw cap, crown cap or Diam cap. The latter three are in the screw cap classification. Attendees at the 2007 tasting were asked to vote for their preferred wine in each pair. The wines included sparkling wine (Chandon Prestige Etoile Brut and Etoile Rose), French Chablis from 2002 (Domaine Laroche Saint Martin, Premier Cru Les Vaudevey, Grand Cru Les Blanchots, Grand Cru Les Clos), French white and red 2005 Burgundy (Jean-Claude Boisset Haute Côtes de Nuits Blanc, Boisset Bourgogne Pinot Noir) and a California red (2002 Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Tri County). The majority of attendees in 2007 preferred six of the wines bottled with other than cork closures — (one in the red pair and five in the white pairs). To see how additional aging would affect the results, the Guild requested extra bottles in to cellar for a future tasting.
Michel Laroche, who is the fifth generation of his family making Chablis, had somewhat of an epiphany in regard to screw caps when he tasted his 2001 vintage bottled with cork closures. Bad corks affected about ten percent of the wines. Monsieur Laroche said, “I wanted a closure that closed and did not impart any taste. Cork is not neutral. It is a part of a tree. Each cork has a different smell. In a fresh delicate wine like Chablis it is pronounced, like a spot on a white shirt.” The experience with the 2001 vintage led to his screw cap experiments, and his subsequent bottling of Chablis produced by Domaine Laroche with screw caps for sale in the New World where it has enjoyed wide acceptance.
The results from the recent tasting in 2011 were the reverse of those in 2007 for the same wines. This time six of the ten wines with cork closures were preferred, three of those with alternate closures were preferred and one resulted in a tie. There were a few tasters who had no preference. I doubt whether the switch in preference was due the extra years of aging. Not surprisingly, it comes down to preference is a matter of individual taste.
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Pick of the Bunch
(screw cap wines)
2007 Frescobaldi Nipozanno Riserva, Chianti Rufina, Italy ($20)
2008 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier, McLaren Vale, Australia ($22)
2009 Gnarly Dudes Shiraz, Barossa Vly, Australia ($26)
2008 Babich Family Estates East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand ($14)
2009 A to Z Pinot Noir, Willamette Vly, Oregon ($15)
2008 Fetish The Watcher Shiraz, Barossa