Trying to bring closure to cork woes


A rose by any other name would still smell sweet - but what if it didn't?

Imagine a world in which about one in every 12 to 20 roses started to smell like an overflowing sewage treatment plant.

The cultural association between roses and romance wouldn't fade overnight. Most roses - and some whole bouquets - would be fine. But gradually the stinky roses would take their toll, and true romantics would find an alternative.

That's the point where corks are today in the world of wine. As a frequent wine taster, I can affirm that the problem of cork contamination by the chemical TCA - which can import a malodorous smell of mold and dirty gym shoes to even the finest wines - is rampant and growing.

In the last six months alone, I have encountered three TCA-tainted wines from a single winery with an otherwise sterling reputation. It is no wonder why many wine-producing pioneers around the globe are switching to screw caps - a distinctly unromantic technology that works.

So can cork be saved?

One cork producer, Sabate, says the answer is yes. After reading my ringing endorsement of screw caps in a column this summer, a company representative contacted me to say that French-based Sabate S.A.S. had developed a cork-based closure that was at least as effective in forestalling TCA contamination as screw caps.

Using a process called "supercritical carbon dioxide extraction," the company treated cork granules to eliminate TCA molecules in a stopper it calls Diamant - French for diamond.

The company provided detailed studies showing the product scored slightly better in taste tests than screw caps - and much higher than untreated cork-based stoppers.

Apparently, the trial was sufficiently successful to win over prominent cork-bashing Australian wine critics, and several reputable wine companies have committed to using the product.

Count me as hopeful but unconvinced.

Certainly it is refreshing to see a cork producer doing something about the TCA problem rather than pooh-poohing it. If the industry can come up with a reliable, taint-free cork, this whole debate can come to - pardon the pun - closure. Wine writers can go back to writing about wine rather than cork.

A preference for cork

That certainly would be a good result as far as the public is concerned. Polling shows that U.S. consumers prefer cork to artificial closures by a wide margin. According to one survey, 52 percent of consumers found screw caps unacceptable.

But Sabate has a lot of hurdles to clear before the cork industry can put down the twist-off revolution.

For one thing, its product is a "cork-based closure" instead of a true cork punched out of a chunk of bark. Wineries concerned about tradition and appearance may look down on an agglomeration of cork bits - no matter how clean.

Such stoppers are now in widespread use in cheap wines - reducing their appeal to the snob set. And Sabate is not claiming the stoppers are suitable for long-aging wines.

Second, Sabate still hasn't shown it can keep its process taint-free once the Diamant stopper goes into mass production. It would be wonderful if it could, but the jury's out.

Another good question is whether cork should be saved. My experiences with screw-capped wines have been consistently positive - both for whites and reds. No, you don't get the popping sound that some consider part of the ritual. But neither do you get screw caps breaking in two or getting pushed into the bottle.

Most of all, I have never tasted a TCA-tainted wine with a screw cap.

Going with twist-offs

When it comes to aging wines under screw caps, some highly respected producers of cellar-worthy reds are betting on the twist-offs.

Quixote Winery, run by veteran Napa Valley vintner Carl Doumani of Stags' Leap Winery fame, has produced a trio of high-priced reds packaged quite attractively under screw caps.

These wines - a 2001 cabernet sauvignon and 2001 petite sirah under the Quixote label (both $60) and a 2001 Panza petite sirah ($40) - are serious, concentrated wines from prime Stags Leap District vineyards.

The sumptuous but structured Panza invites cellaring; the other two demand it. The Quixote petite sirah, in particular, is a classic of its kind - bold, structured and complex. The cabernet is a big, tough red with a lot of promise.

Doumani, who's been doing this stuff since 1972, says he's using the screw caps because he no longer trusts corks. Good for him.

It would be terrific if the cork industry could clean up its act, and it's wonderful that Sabate might produce a taint-free "cork product." The more TCA-free choices there are on the market, the fewer excuses wineries will have for not using them.

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