Pop Goes the Cork – Or not?

By Posted on Mar 16 2009 | By

popping-corkThe era was the late 1600s in France. The man was Dom Pierre Perignon—a Benedictine monk credited with introducing many of today’s modern winemaking techniques.  His innovations include the annual close pruning of the vines, an emphasis on minimal handling of the harvested fruit and the gentle processing of the grapes during fermentation.

In case his name sounds a bit familiar, it should. Over two centuries after his death a wine would be named in his honor.  Dom Perignon, the world famous champagne that retails for $120 a bottle or more.

But the Dom’s real contribution to the world of wine was his use of cork to seal a bottle.  The mists of time cannot verify for certain the good monk was the very first vintner to stick a cork in a bottle.  But the historical record strongly points to him as the creator of the single most important technological advancement in the production of wine.

Prior to the marriage of the cork and the bottle, wine had to be enjoyed within a year of its production.  If our ancestors delayed drinking it, the precious nectar would turn to vinegar.   Oh, there were exceptions.  Wine could be adulterated with numerous additives to preserve its health; among these were seawater, pine pitch and lead.  Yes, lead.

The Romans particularly liked using grape syrup boiled in leaden pots to enhance and preserve their wine.  Modern wine drinkers have a hard time getting their palate around the idea of lead as an additive to wine.  But it actually did sweeten and preserve it.  It also killed a lot of Romans.  In fact, some historians posit that the fall of the Roman Empire was due in large part to the lead poisoning of its intelligentsia.

The advent of sealing a bottle of wine, with a properly sized cork that blocked air from oxidizing the liquid, was a major breakthrough in winemaking.  It also eliminated the need to add harsh preservatives.    Wine could safely age and become greater than its original self.  And we think the iPod was a neat idea.

corksFor over three hundred years, cork was the closure of choice for winemakers around the world.  But an unfortunate situation developed in the 1980s that threaten to end the cork’s dynasty. Stinky wine.  More wine began smelling like moldy, damp newspapers.  In the patois of the wine industry, the wine was “corked.”  Up to 8% of wine was tainted with this malodorous aroma.

The cause of the problem was largely a failure of the cork industry to listen and respond to the complaints of its customers.  Cork taint occurs because of a mold that develops due to the use of chlorine to whiten the naturally brown cork.  Since Portugal and Spain produce over eighty percent of the world’s cork, producers felt they had a natural monopoly and did not heed the discontent that was breeding.

New Zealand and Australia struck first.  Convinced that a significant percentage of their cork orders were of second-rate quality, vintners Down Under began experimenting with screw caps.  Today, ninety-five percent of white wines coming out of New Zealand are sealed with a screw cap.  Australia’s volume is a close second.  But more importantly, winemakers worldwide began shifting to the new seal and abandoning cork’s three hundred year old legacy.

In concert with the attack on cork, other types of closures began to appear along with the screw cap.  Technical corks—bits of ground cork glued together in the shape of its real brother, and synthetic corks—plastic shaped into the familiar plug, also were being introduced.  Winemakers increasingly tried to assure themselves, and more importantly, their customers, that the effort in producing a quality bottle of wine would not be negated when the cork was removed.  Aroma is an integral part of wine’s enjoyment.  A bottle emitting an odor similar to a newspaper caught in a summer shower did not excite winemakers who knew their original product smelled like ambrosia.

So what does the future hold for the cork sealed wine bottle?  The jury is still deliberating.  The battle of the titans appears to be between the cork and the screw cap.  Both technical and synthetic corks are gaining adherents for wine meant to be consumed young. But these alternative closures might have drawbacks, including the question of whether too much air is permitted to enter the bottle during extended aging.  If this turns out to be a fact, wine–particularly red wine–would suffer the woes of oxidization over a long cellaring period.  Not a good thing for a high priced bottle of Bordeaux.

Today, the use of cork has declined from 95% to 72% of market share but is still the predominate method of sealing a bottle. Large producers of inexpensive wine are likely to lead the way in the search for alternative closures.  Wineries producing fine wine appear to be remaining loyal to natural cork.  The tradition and romance of real cork, and the unique “pop” of a just opened bottle of wine, is difficult to replicate with a man made closure.

And, cork producers are not ceding ground.  The wine bottle closure market is a $4 billion annual business.  The industry is fighting back to maintain its market dominance.   Aggressive quality control measures have been introduced and the major firms are claiming the taint problem is a thing of the past.  Time will tell.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to ask Dom Perignon what he thought of a screw-capped wine?

Picture the scene as the gentle monk, dressed in his flowing cloak, softly strokes his chin and murmurs, “screw caps…hmmm?”  Then, hearing the monastery bells and faint strains of Gregorian chant, turns and slowly walks away without comment.

monk1Even the Dom would want to meditate on that question.

Published February 26, 2009 in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES