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Wines & Vines

Getting serious about screwcaps

Getting serious about screwcaps – Brief Article

Larry Walker

The screwcap, a wine-bottle closure that has been around for decades, has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight by producers in Australia and New Zealand. Reacting to concerns about cork taint from traditional corks and the possibility of other contamination from the new “technical corks,” a group of winemakers in the Glare Valley of Australia bottled Riesling in screwcaps for the 2000 vintage. They judged the move to be both a technical and a marketing success, and more Australian wineries are planning to join the screwcap move.

In the meantime, some 27 New Zealand producers have formed a group called The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative. The group, which was formed in May of 2001, represents every wine-producing region in New Zealand, and a number of wines, mostly white but including some Pinot noir and Merlot, are being bottled using screwcaps.

Rose Prendeville, the project coordinator for the group, said, “There has been much to learn about packaging material requirements, application equipment and process control to achieve successful application of screw-cap seals. We have been extremely grateful to suppliers for the technical support that they have given us. In particular, ACI Glass Packaging (NZ) has developed new molds to provide our members with screwcap glass, and we have been fortunate to have the open technical support of two capsules suppliers, Pechiney/Esvin with the Stelvin brand and Auscap with Supervin.”

A few weeks ago, Bob Campbell, a master of wine and New Zealand wine judge and author, was in San Francisco. Campbell was meeting with members of the trade and brought along several bottles of wine to taste.

Campbell is so enthusiastic about the potential for screwcaps that he said he was contributing his time and effort for expenses only to spread the good news. (Following two stops in California, he was flying to London for meetings there with leading retailers.)

“I have yet to meet a winemaker in New Zealand or Australia who didn’t agree that the screwcap closure was superior to the cork closure,” Campbell said during a meeting with Wines & Vines. He added that part of his mission was to destroy the myth that “wine bottled under a screwcap doesn’t age.” To demonstrate that, he offered a vertical of three Eden Valley (Australia) Rieslings from 1995, 1997 and 1999. It was clear that the older wine had matured and taken on the character one would expect in a 6year-old Riesling.

“I’ve tasted Riesling on several occasions from the 1978 vintage and they have aged very well,” Campbell said. Asked about the prospect of putting red wine in screwcaps, Campbell said he thought red wine would develop normally.

Wineries using screwcaps included top New Zealand producers such as Kim Crawford Wines, Kumeu River Wines and Neudorf wines. Neudorf is one of the wineries switching to screwcaps for reds as well as whites.

Australian Tests

In July, only a few months after the formation of the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) announced its first publication of results from a trial of different bottle closures that began in May 1999 when a Semillon was bottled under controlled conditions using 14 different closures-a screwcap, two grades of conventional cork, two types of technical cork and nine closures manufactured from synthetic polymer material. The study is ongoing, with enough wine bottled for up to 10 years of testing.

The AWRI reported that many of the closures are suited to short term storage, perhaps six to 12 months, but for longer time periods there is “doubt over particular closures’ ability to act as an adequate seal, with consequent effects on sulfur dioxide levels in the wine, browning and an oxidized aroma.

The report noted that wine sealed with the screwcap retained the greatest concentration of [SO.sub.2] (sulfur dioxide) and ascorbic acid and had the slowest rate of browning.

The report continued that after 12 months of storage, wine in bottles sealed with the closures showing the lowest [SO.sub.2] concentration was rated as sufficiently high in oxidized aroma to consider them as markedly lower in quality. TCA taint was a noticeable problem for some cork and technical corks while there did not appear to be a problem with plastic taint with most synthetic closures, with one exception (which the report did not name). After 18 months of storage, a rubber-like aroma had developed in wine sealed with the screwcap closure, the report added.

“For a range of performance criteria, the technical corks were found to exhibit less variability than synthetic closures, which in turn tended to be less variable than the natural cork closures,” the report concluded. (A full copy of the report can be seen at awri.com.au or through Val Rechner at asvo@waite.adelaide.edu.au.)

In comments on the report, Michael Brajkovich, the winemaker at Kumeu River Winery, said, “The rubbery smell detected under the screwcap is most likely to have come from further chemical reduction of traces of hydrogen sulphide remaining in the wine at bottling. In no other wine sealed with a screwcap (from 2 to 20 years old) have we seen any such character.

On the subject of bottle age, Brajkovich added, “All the reading I have done shows that the real cause of bottle age in wine is the complex of slow, reductive reactions that take place in the absence of oxygen. These occur more favorably with a screwcap.” Brajkovich has made the decision to bottle all Kumeu River wines with screwcap, both white and red.

In the Market

Campbell said during our meeting that he expected the U.S. market to be the most difficult for the sale of screwcap wines, largely because the wines would be identified with the cheap jug wines of past years. (Indeed, Sutter Home, which had changed from cork to screwcap for its line of inexpensive 1.5 liter bottles, has recently switched back to corks, citing pressure from distributors.)

“Consumers in Australia, New Zealand and the UK don’t seem to have a problem with screwcaps,” he said.

The U.S. might not be as hard a sell as anticipated. At The Jug Shop, a leading independent San Francisco retailer, Chuck Haywood said they were selling the 2000 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling from Australia in both a screwcap and a cork finish. “Given a choice, our customers went at least 80% for the screwcap,” he said.

Haywood also teaches a wine class in the University of California Extension Division. “It’s pretty evenly divided between those who say screwcaps are OK, those with no opinion and those who hold out for corks,” he said. “A lot of the cork fans are older and no doubt remember the days of screwtop Gallo wines,” he added.

Wilfred Wong of Beverages & More!, the California chain, said he believes consumers will accept screwcaps if the trade and press get behind them. “I personally don’t see any reason to use corks for any wine meant for near-term drinking,” he added.

In late October, the UK supermarket chain Tesco advised Australian producers to use screwcaps for wines meant to be drunk within three to four years. Tesco is the world’s largest buyer of Australian wines, taking about 2.5 million cases annually.

Phil Reedman, product development manager of Tesco, said he believed the screwcap was the best possible closure. He was speaking to journalists after taking part in a 340-wine tasting organized by Australia’s leading consumer magazine, Winestate. Consumer evidence was unreliable, Reedman said, adding, “We do internal tastings, and I’m confident that the real number of wines that are (cork) tainted is about 5%.”

Trevor Gulliver, the owner of a wine bar and several restaurants in London, recently urged that more screwcap wines be shipped to the UK. “In my view, one in 12 bottles of wine sold in bars and restaurants in the UK is corked to some degree. I believe that 80% of those corked wines are unwittingly or uncaringly drunk, which does a disservice to us all,” he told Harpers, a London wine and spirits trade publication.

Vincent Ravands, the general manager of Pechiney Cork & Seal in Napa, is an importer of the Stelvin screwcap, which has proven very popular in Australia and New Zealand.

“Our best market is Switzerland,” he said. “We sell about 60 million units a year there.” Ravands said he expects the use of screwcaps to grow quickly in the U.S. market. “People here are willing to take a risk and try something different. When you talk to the winemakers, they know it is the best.”

Ravands said he could not disclose any names, but he is expecting an announcement in the next few months from several producers of super-premium Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that they will be offering wine in screwcap bottles. He said they were in the $50 and up price range.

Last year, PlumpJack Winery in Napa offered a 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon in both cork and screwcap. The winery has not announced whether they will continue with the screwcap bottling.

Ravands said that one problem is finding glass of high quality. “It has to be a perfect match for screwcaps. At this point, very few can supply that quality.” Another drawback is the capping machine, which must be added to the bottling line.

One technical problem, Ravands added, is the amount of headspace in the bottle. “Air space will have to be carefully adjusted and calculated. That could have an impact on the aging process.

As for cost, he said, screwcaps, once the bottling equipment is installed, are cheaper than cork and can also be recycled as the screwcap is made of aluminum.

Room for Both

In New York, Robert Parmalee at Waterloo Container said they have had steady sales of screwcaps to large producers in the East, but no new interest from smaller premium producers.

Mark Silvani at California Glass Company sells both screwcaps and corks. “I have no particular axe to grind one way or the other,” he said. “I think there is a place for both closures. From the standpoint of sealing the bottle, the screwcap is better. It’s more consistent and is virtually foolproof with regard to contamination, but it does not have the traditional panache of the cork. It’s a matter of perception.”

He agreed that on a cost basis, the screwcap is cheaper, but it would be a heavy expense for a small premium winery to refit a bottling line.

“I do believe the problem with TCA has been overstated. I agree that it exists, but the cork industry has made huge progress in the past five years, he said. “The quality and consistency is way ahead, especially with technical corks like the DuoDisk that we sell.”

Silvani added, “In my opinion, the premium and super-premium producers will stick with corks. There’s room for both.”

(Wines & Vines would be interested in feedback on your winery experience and/or plans for the use of screwcap closures. Please e-mail Associate Editor Larry Walker at winewalker@aol.com. For a list of leading screwcap suppliers and bottling suppliers, consult the Wines & Vines Buyer’s Guide for 2001.)

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