Why the snobbery over corks?
bbc.co.uk, June 17 2013
A new wine cork that screws into the bottle is being unveiled. But why is there still so much snobbery in the battle between traditional cork and screw-top?
The sound is unmistakeable.
A scientist might talk about the explosive pop of a wine cork in terms of pressure or elasticity.
But for wine lovers, the distinctive creak and pop means something good is happening. It triggers associations - social intimacy, relaxation, nuanced aromas, celebration - that go far beyond just a slug of alcohol.
The unveiling this week of a new style of cork raises the question of why the traditional kind continues to dominate much of the wine world.
The Helix is opened with just a twist of the hand. No corkscrew is necessary as the top of the bottle has a thread inside.
The glass bottle and cork combination for wine is thought to have started in the 17th Century. But newer materials exist today that some argue are better suited for sealing a bottle than cork.
Screw caps and plastic corks have been embraced by producers fed up with wine becoming "corked" - the unpleasant musty taste, likened to wet dog, which is caused by tainted cork.
Influential US wine critic Robert Parker reckons that during the mid 1990s 7-10% of the wine he tasted was corked. In 2004 he predicted that by 2015 screw caps would dominate the wine industry.
The screw cap - generic name "Stelvin" after its biggest brand - advanced spectacularly in "New World" wine nations. By 2011, 90% of New Zealand wine was sealed this way.
But in Europe and the US the cork remains king.
It's a little puzzling to some. Wine has become democratic and modern. There are prices and drinking styles to suit everyone. So why hasn't the closure method evolved?
Portugal, where most of the world's corks are harvested, has fought back against the chemical compound trichloroanisole (TCA), one of the most common causes of tainted corks.
But the screw cap not only avoids the problem of tainted cork, it forms a tighter seal. Most critics say that this guarantees a better flavour for all but the more expensive wines (which may age better with more oxygen).
"We prefer seals that ensure the wine is not going to be faulty," says Ewan Murray, spokesman for the Wine Society. "Wines that are ready to drink young are always going to be fresher under a screw cap."
The Spectator's expert, Simon Hoggart, says he has only once had "off" wine from a screw cap bottle.
"The chances of the wine tasting good are far higher," he says.
What the Stelvin doesn't have is the suspenseful turning of the screw followed by deft flick of the wrist - or undignified pull between the legs - and the "voila" moment as cork comes free from bottle.
For critics like Hoggart the lack of drama doesn't matter.
"I'm not remotely embarrassed about opening up a screw cap in front of guests. Why should anyone be ashamed of demonstrating that they really cared for their pleasure in the wine?"
But for the ordinary drinker, cultural expectations - wine snobbery even - might be at play.
It might help to explain why large bottling firm O-I and cork giant Amorim would produce a handscrew cork. After all, the screw cap already exists. The firms cite market research showing that 94% of consumers in the US and 90% in France prefer cork stoppers.
The new cork is similar to those found in whisky or sherry bottles, except without the plastic layer on top.
O-I's European chief executive Eric Bouts says it is aimed at wines in the £5-10 ($8-15) market. Customers on a picnic won't need to hunt around for a corkscrew.
The cork fits snuggly back into the bottle unlike plastic stoppers or tougher less spongy corks. But connoisseurs will know that the only way of keeping wine drinkable for the following day is to vacuum pump it.
The makers of the Helix say it will be in European shops within two years, but also hope to grab a piece of the fast growing Chinese market, which has overtaken the UK to become the world's fifth biggest.
Wine is all about tradition in China. French imports account for 48% of the Chinese market and cork is what consumers expect.
It's not just consumers who are suspicious of screw caps. Some appellations (regional wine classification bodies) ban vineyards from using Stelvins.
In 2008, Italian producer, Allegrini, decided to withdraw from the Valpolicella Classico denomination so as to be able to use a screw cap.
It shows there is more to wine than reliability. It's about character and romance, says Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner.
The more money you spend, the more ritual you want for your buck. That includes a corkscrew, he believes. "If I was to go out and spend 40 or 50 quid on a nice bottle of Pomerol or St Emilion I'd feel I'd been robbed if I opened it the same way I open a bottle of Coke. The crack of a screw top is not the same as the pop of a wine cork."
The cork has one other trump card. Unlike Stelvins, it grows on trees. It fits with wine's earthiness, of no two bottles being quite the same. The French use the word "terroir" to sum up this almost spiritual sense of local distinctiveness.
A metal top guarantees consistency. But for the traditionalist it will never offer the joy of sniffing a fragrant, tannin stained cork.