The reassuring thwock of a cork being pulled from a wine bottle has been music to the ears of wine lovers for about three centuries. Now it seems the wine industry might be changing its tune. Almost all the producers of the prestigious Rieslings coming out of Australia's Clare Valley have started topping their bottles with screw caps instead of corks. Why the change?
Recent rumor had it that the world was running out of cork. Not true. More than enough cork is produced each year ― mostly in Portugal ― to meet world demand. No, the driving force behind screw caps (Stelvins, as the most common are called) is a flaw in cork itself. Although on one hand, it's a fairly miraculous product ― almost impermeable to air and water, resistant to rot, and elastic enough to be compressed into the neck of a wine bottle ― cork is susceptible to a contamination known as cork taint, which causes some wines to develop a musty aroma akin to wet cardboard. Drinking a "corked" wine isn't harmful, but it's very unpleasant and frustrating, especially when you paid $25 for that Chardonnay now languishing in the fridge. Needless to say, the Chardonnay's producer isn't happy either, since you now associate his or her wines with wet cardboard. Some experts put the value of ruined wine at $10 billion annually.
A cure for corkedness
There appears to be only one real cure for "corkedness": Don't use corks. Many producers have tried synthetic cork look-alikes. But some of these smell pretty bad themselves and are nearly impossible to get out of the bottle.
Then one local producer took a radical step: PlumpJack Winery in the Napa Valley released half of its 1997 and 1998 reserve Cabernet Sauvignons in bottles with screw caps (priced at $135) and the remainder in bottles with traditional corks ($125). Guess which people preferred? Yes, the screw caps. And the buzz is that several top California producers are considering following PlumpJack and the Australians and going with Stelvins.
WINES FROM DOWN UNDER
Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2000 (Clare Valley), $26. A crisp, sassy white, packed with mineral and peach flavors and easy to drink ― just unscrew the cap!
Tahbilk Marsanne 2000 (Nagambie Lakes), $12. A fresh white wine, with hints of honey and crisp apples.
Jasper Hill "Georgia's Paddock" Shiraz 1999 (Heathcote, Victoria), $60. A dense, lush, mouth-filling red.
Penfolds Old Vine Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvèdre 1998 (Barossa Valley), $19. Velvet-textured and as fruity as a boysenberry pie.