Now that I am done reeling from the surprisingly risque Mad Men Season 3 premier, I can talk about wine. More specifically, I can talk about wine closures. If you walk down the wine aisle of any liquor or grocery store, you are likely to see that producers are increasingly using screwcaps to close the wines instead of the traditional cork. "Wait a second...aren't screwcaps just for cheap, crappy Riunite?" you may ask. Not anymore, my friend. Okay, then why are companies doing this? Certainly there is more romance involved with the popping of a cork than with the "pffft" sound that is similar to opening a Pepsi. Why the change? Well there are a couple of reasons.
Traditionally, wines were enclosed with natural cork. This comes by harvesting the wood from the outside layer of trees, and most of it comes from Portugal. There have been rumors circulating around the internet about a "cork shortage". However, the evidence that I have read basically says that there is plenty of cork, so that's not the reason. Also, there have been reports that harvesting the cork damages the trees. On the flip side, I have read that the trees have become acclimated to having the outer layers removed, and to stop this process would kill them. In all fairness, I haven't done enough research to put either argument out there in a manner that would create a good case, but this isn't the reason for the change.
The problem lies in a chemical called 2,4,6 trichloroanisole. We will call it TCA. This is a compound that is present in cork trees, that they get from certain kinds of allowable pesticides. As a result of small amounts of TCA in some trees, it natually will end up in some corks. When the affected cork comes in contact with wine, the TCA makes the wine smell funny. Some descriptions I have heard of the smell are "moldy basement", "wet newspaper", or "nursing home". I think it smells like a wet dog. The industry term for this is having a "corked" wine, or a wine with "cork taint". I have seen from my own experience that this happens in one of about every 20 bottles of wine. Think about this....this means that roughly 5% of the wines with natural cork that are hitting the market are bad. It doesn't matter what you are producing, if 5% of your product is going out the door defective, you would do something to fix it. There are some methods that people are trying, including bleaching the corks. In my opinion, this is putting something harmful (bleach) awfully close to something that you are about to drink (wine). Not good.
So, we have a bunch of wine bottles that need to be closed. Several solutions have come about. First of all are the synthetic corks, made of rubber or plastic. There are a couple of problems with these. They are incredibly hard to remove from the bottle, and God help you if you don't finish the bottle, that cork will not go back in! Another problem with the synthetics is that they don't allow the wine to breathe at all in the bottle. One benefit of natural cork is that is allows microscopic amounts of air to seep into the wine, which helps age it. Finally, they are a petroleum-based product, and producing these isn't exactly beneficial to our environment.
I have seen rubberized "zorks" that are easy to remove, but again- bad for the earth.
There are some wineries that are playing with glass enclosures. These are really cool- they keep a tight seal, and are easy to open and close. The problem here is that they are really expensive, and break easily.
Finally, we have screw cap enclosures, which solve several of the problems. You won't get a corked wine, since there is no cork involved. They allow tiny amounts of air into the wine, thus helping the ageing process. They are inexpensive to make, which helps your pocket book. Finally, bartenders and homes without corkscrews love them, as they are easy to open and re-close if needed.
All of this being said, I am still a fan of cork closures. My wife and I have a collection of "special" corks from our relationship. As I said before, there is a je nais se quois that comes with the popping of the cork that you don't get with screwcaps. It also remains to be seen as to how well screwcaps handle long-term ageing. I guess we'll see!
In the meantime, don't be put out if someone gives you wine with a screwcap enclosure. This is an increasingly acceptable thing to do, and doesn't mean you should drink the wine out of a paper bag!
Over the weekend, the Saint Louis Chapter of the Super Secret Double Probation Dining Club met, and I was reminded of a delicious appertif that is my recommendation for today...the Kir Royale. Go get yourself a bottle of inexpensive bubbly (American sparkling, Cava, Prosecco, etc will work just fine. Don't spend too much money on it though), and a bottle of Creme De Cassis or Chambord. Just mix one part Chambord to 5 parts cold bubbly, and enjoy- it's really refreshing!
Cheers, and have a great day!