Everything you wanted to know, but never dared ask about screwcaps…

Why put something used on Coca-Cola on to fine wine?

The Screwcap on a wine bottle isn’t the same as those used for other food and drink: it has been specially developed for protecting fine wine over an extended aging period in the bottle. Specifically, the part in contact with the wine, (made from a thin Teflon film covering pure tin) is designed to stay stable and flavour neutral for decades.

Why are they called Stelvin?

They were originally developed in Australia, but the screwcap we use is made for us by Pecheney in France. Pecheney are one of the worlds leading designers of wine bottle closures and also make capsules for fine wine. Their brand name for the screwcap they make is Stelvin (vin as in wine and Stel as in…who knows?)

They are also sometimes known as ROTP, or Roll On Tamper Proof.

Is cork taint that bad a problem?

In a word, Yes. All the serious research is coming up with about the same figure: i.e. 5% of wine closed in cork suffers from cork taint. Lower levels of cork taint are the most unpleasant in that they spoil the personality of the wine subtly, but it takes an expert to identify it as corked: most people just don’t think the wine is very nice. Badly corked wine is easy to spot, but somewhat rarer.

If 5% of our wine were damaged this way that would be 500 cases of Felton Road wine ruined every year (just imagine being given 500 cases of our wine then being told to pour it all down the drain!). In addition to cork taint are the problems associated with leaking corks and random oxidation.

Why don’t the cork manufacturers do something about it?

They’re trying and have been for many years now. The principle chemical causing the problem: 2-4-6 Trichloranisole, is almost unbelievably tasty: you would easily be able to taste one drop of it dissolved in 50,000 litres of water! So the amounts they are trying to eliminate are unimaginably low: they need to get under 2 parts per trillion (that’s a thousand million), before the problem is solved, and many people say they need to be below 1 part per trillion. There are new processes which appear to be successful in eliminating cork taint from compound wine corks made from cork flour, though it will take some years to get these processes into mass production.

If it happens, will you go back to corks?

That is very unlikely, because even without cork taint, screwcap wine tastes noticeably better. The first thing you notice if you compare  the same aromatic white wine in cork and screwcap bottles is that you can actually taste the cork in the wine! Aside from the cork taste, wines age more gracefully in screwcap, holding their aromatics while developing complexity. There have been a number of comparative tastings now, where distinguished tasting panels have compared the same wines in cork and screwcap at various points in their development, (there are library stocks of many wines in screwcaps going back more than 20 years).

In every single tasting, the majority vote has been heavily for screwcap.

Not for reds, surely?

A few months ago, in Bordeaux, a group of very senior tasters (people like Michel Rolland, the legendary Bordeaux winemaker), did comparative tastings of many reds in screwcap and cork. The oldest wine was a 1983 Kanonkop, from South Africa. Not a single red wine in the tasting was preferred by the tasting panel in its cork version. In most cases the preference for Stelvin wine was considerable. Our 2001 Pinot Noir, for example was preferred by 70% of the judges in Stelvin. They also gave our 2001 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and 2001 Block 5 Pinot Noir “very highly rated” scores in Stelvin.

Don’t wines need a cork that “breathes” to age properly?

Quite how this myth has arisen is a mystery. Good, flawless corks do not breathe anyway, and the entry of oxygen into the bottle is unnecessary and potentially very harmful.

Quote Professor Emile Peynaud of Bordeaux: “it is the opposite of oxidation, a process of reduction, or asphyxia by which wine develops in the bottle” or Professor Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon: “Reactions that take place in bottled wine do not require oxygen”.

Is this just a New World trend?

Not any more. Domaine Laroche in Chablis are using screwcaps to bottle some of their production of white Burgundy, right up to Grand Cru level. Paul Blanck in Alsace is doing the same.

This year will see some Bordeaux producers joining the trend, the first time the closures have been used in Bordeaux since 1969, when Chateau Haut Brion first tried them, (with some success, we understand).

In the USA Willakenzie Estate, Plumpjack, Cuvaison, Silverado, Bonny Doon, and many more are using screwcaps.

Is this the end for cork?

Probably not. Cork sales are still increasing, due to an overall increase in wine production. We believe that Screwcap closures will principally be taken up by quality conscious producers of relatively high end wines.

There has been talk that critical wildlife populations rely on the cork industry to supply their habitat?

This is a rather disingenuous PR tale. The vast areas of scrub forest that are cultivated by the cork industry, would not be destroyed should the industry decline, simply because there is no other use for such poor quality land. It would return to the wilderness that used to house these very same animals before the industry existed.

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