Monday, January 8, 2007

On Screw-tops, corks, and half-bottles

I was asked about screw-tops and alternative corks, like plastic and composite, and whether or not they were a sign of cheap wine. Also if half-bottles meant better wine. Here's my reply:

"Both screw-tops and synthetic corks are perfectly fine from a technical standpoint -- both do an excellent job of keeping air away from the wine and keeping it from going bad. They are also less expensive than true cork, which comes from the bark of an oak tree grown mostly in Spain and Portugal. It takes 15 to 20 years for the trees to mature and then their bark can be stripped just once ever 6 years. As wine production increased, demand for cork increased. Add to this a disease that attacked cork trees, and you can imagine what happened to price. True cork can from time to time go "bad" and impart an "off" taste. It can also dry out and break off, both of which cause problems. All this led to research for a replacement. Hence screw-tops and synthetic materials. The main drawback to screw-tops is they do away with the ceremony of removing the cork. A lot of wine lovers (we old snobs?) miss that and so resist them. Also, if you have a nice corkscrew collection, it's rendered useless. The main drawback I've found with synthetic corks is they can be harder to remove. They fit tightly, and can adhere to the glass, so getting them out can be a struggle. Still, I get to use a corkscrew. Ironically, another drawback to both screw-tops and plastic corks is they do too good a job of keeping the air away from the wine. A bit of air is essential to a wine's maturation and natural cork allows some "breathing" to take place. So any wine maker who wants his or her wines to evolve in bottle will be unlikely to use screw tops or synthetic cork. Bottom line: these types of closures work very well, increase the likelihood the wine will remain healthy, and help keep prices down. I'd say overall they are a good thing. There are some $100 bottles that now come with screw-caps, but I don't think natural cork will ever be completely replaced. Don't avoid a wine simply because it has a screw top, that's for sure.

As for half-bottles, the wines are not better (virtually every wine maker puts part of his or her production in half-bottles), but they mature faster, about twice as fast, and so can taste better than the identical wine in a larger bottle. That's because the ratio of wine to oxygen is smaller and it's oxygen than accounts for much of the maturing process. So, if you like the aged taste of wine (which I do), then half-bottles are one way to speed up the process or get an idea of where it's headed. The downside to half-bottles has been the cork. With shorter necks to the bottles there is not as much surface for the cork to adhere to, so too much air can get in easier than with a regular bottle. As a result, half-bottles go bad faster and more often. This is one instance where screw tops can be very useful. On the flip side, if the wine is placed in a larger bottle, a magnum or double-magnum, it will be that much slower to mature and so survive that much longer. Collectors of fine wines like larger bottles for this reason. Bottom line: half-bottles are not better, but they they can taste better (more mature) than an identical wine in a regular bottle; they can go bad quicker and more easily, so you have to make sure you buy them from a dealer who handles them properly and then make sure to store them properly yourself. Where half bottles come in particularly handy is with dessert wines. It's hard to drink a full bottle of sweet wine at the end of a meal, but you might want a glass or two. But in general I'd steer clear of half-bottles unless you're sure they're in good condition and you plan to drink them soon.

In the picture above the cork on the left is a composite cork, meaning it's made of cork pieces pressed together. Like particle board. If you look closely you can see the flecks of cork of which it is composed. The cork on the right is plastic. It has a smooth, shinny surface. The cork on its side is a true cork. It has a grain to it, and small pits dot it's surface. If you click on the picture you can see it at full size. In case anyone is wondering, Banyuls is a fortified sweet wine, something like Port, from the south of France. It goes wonderfully well with chocolate, one of the few wines that does.

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