Archive for the ‘wine tasting’ Category

Turn of the screwcap

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

The future of wine bottle closures is getting clearer (to me). The future of wine bottle closures is screw caps.

screw capWine drinkers cannot have helped but notice that many winemakers make the leap from corks in favour of screwcap closures. Some wine lovers even rant that corks should be abandoned.

A series of trials had been undertaken by both the University of Burgundy (1960s) and the Australian Wine Research Institute (1970s) and consecutive tastings proved that screwcaps were indeed a viable alternative to natural cork.

For instance, Stelvin is the best-known brand of screwcaps and it is used on Taylors Cabernets.

“No other industry in the world accepts the type of product failure experienced using cork” says George Fistonich of New Zealand screwcap pioneer Villa Maria . Fistonich has been standing firm and all Villa Maria bottles are screwcapped. New Zealand producers have followed and have started a so-called Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative
The n

Screwcap Initiative gets vocal on the radio

In July 2007 an advertising campaign started on the NZ radio. It was embarked upon by the Screwcap Initiative. It has high profile winemakers talking in favour of their preferred wine bottle closure. Wine maker Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River Wines in Auckland is one of them.

In the advertisement he says, “We were one of the first to export wine in a
screwcap wine bottle. The Old World wine trade didn’t like the idea – at first, they liked
the romance of the cork. But a few of us New World winemakers knew it fixed the problem ofcork taint and once the public twigged to it, it was their seal of quality. It’s another
example of New Zealanders going with what works for us and then finding out that the rest
of the world agrees.”

The advertisement is backed by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and their website “We are right behind the exporters,” says a spokesperson.

Business demand

Chris Hatcher is the chief winemaker at Wolf Blass, Australia. In 2000 he said that their British distributor had asked that the entire next shipment of Annie’s Lane wines be Stelvin-sealed. Now Wolf Blass bottle some of their super-premium Platinum reds under Stelvin. Henschke, Australia, started screwcap bottling with their Keyneton 1995.

In the USA the Bonny Doon winery has championed Stelvin and has set up a Death of the Cork website. It should be added that an extra incentive for the change is that wine company bean counters also love screwcaps as they are cheaper than corks.

In a similar vein, wine critics now mention whether wines they review use screwcaps and restaurant wine lists follow. Consumer acceptance will grow accordingly. What was once a trickle will become a flood — in time.

A new book on the topic of wine closures is due this October. It is entitled ‘TO CORK OR NOT TO CORK: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle’, by George M. Taber, the author of ‘Judgment of Paris’ (Scribner, 2005). A preview of the book is this good-looking fact sheet on wine closures (PDF) (4 MB).

Cork used to be useful

Cork material is a subset of generic cork tissue, harvested for commercial use primarily from the Cork Oak tree, Quercus suber, with Portugal producing 50% of cork worldwide. Cork's elasticity combined with its near-impermeability makes it suitable as a material for bottle stoppers, especially for wine bottles. Cork stoppers represent about 60% of all cork based production. Many cheaper brands have switched to lower quality cork, synthetic plastic stoppers, screwcaps, or other closures. However, plastic Corks were certainly revolutionary in the 17th century when British ale and French champagne makers started to use cork stoppers instead of traditional closures made of hemp soaked in oil. That innovation certainly improved the quality of wines greatly and without it the development of champagne would have been impossible. But in the age of the microchip we are still using the archaic and risky technology of stoppers made from oak bark.

Cork taint

Why risky? Depending on whom you talk to cork taint (TCA) affects maybe five per cent of bottles, making them unpalatable. Yet, strangely, it has taken more than three centuries for winemakers and consumers to grow tired of wines that are diminished in quality due to this taint and to other problems such as unwanted cork flavours, leakage, cork deterioration and so forth. (For example, the renowned Penfolds Wine Clinics’ main focus is the replacement of dodgy corks).

Screwcap benefits

Screwcaps on the other hand are taint free and impermeable.

No cork taint

Everyone you ask will give you a different answer, but the general consensus from the trade is that between 5-15% of wine is adversely affected by 2,4,6 trichloroanisole. This can occur simply when chlorine is used to wash the cork bark or, more worryingly, it can be due to a contamination of the trees themselves due to the use of organic pesticides which contain chlorine and in this case, affect several harvests.

No more sporadic oxidation

The ideal closure should provide an air tight seal to the wine bottle. A good quality cork is a perfect closure, however, as with all natural products, quality variations mean that “random oxidation” has become the second biggest problem linked to natural corks.

“Driven” closures – whether they are natural or synthetic – need good elasticity in order to fill the gaps and irregularities within the bottle neck. In addition to this, natural corks also contain pits, cracks or insect holes and these create a weakness within the seal that can lead to leakage and oxidation.

Traditionalist criticise screwcaps saying that they are not romantic, however, this industrially-produced closure has the advantage of being more consistent identical, therefore making bottle variation a thing of the past.

Screwcaps also seal from around the outside of the bottle, therefore imperfections within the bottle neck are immaterial and the pressure (approx. 160kg) exerted on the head of the screwcap during bottling ensures that it is totally airtight.

Screwcaps avoid flavour modification, including scalping

Cork is a natural product, therefore, it is inevitable that it will impart some level of taste on the wine to a lesser or greater degree.

As John Belsham of Foxes Island and also current NZSCI president says, “We ran a very simple trial of putting corks into glasses of acidified water. There was a varying degree of colour and flavour taint in all glasses – all except one – the glass containing no cork.”

Screwcaps are totally neutral and therefore do not modify the wine in any way, allowing it to retain the original characteristics and age uniformly.

AWRI research has discovered that the TDN flavour molecule – which gives a kerosene type flavour to white wines – is totally absorbed by plastic closures and partially absorbed by natural cork. This is known as flavour scalping and according to the AWRI, there is no evidence of flavour absorption from screwcaps and this therefore explains why they are so well suited to delicate, aromatic wines such as Rieslings.

Young taste

“Screwcaps have shown wines that are brighter, clearer and more focused. Fruit and mineral characters shine through better than before” says Ken Canaiolo Engebretsen, President of the Norwegian Sommelier Association.

Aging with screwcaps

To test their longevity a number of wine companies (notably Yalumba) have bottled wines under both screwcaps and cork over the last few decades. Comparative tastings of these museum wines indicate that Stelvin bottled wines are fresher, cleaner and retain better colour than examples of the same wine under cork. There are criticisms that screwcaps seal too well and can create reductive characters in wines. This is less true today and should only concern wines that you keep a few years.

Cork is doomed

The list of winemakers actively supporting screwcap is growing. A recent example of conversion is that of a well-known and well-regarded winery in Long Island, NY. It’s Paumanok Vineyards.

For near-term wine the days of cork as a closure are numbered.

US growth and wine consumption

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Statistics show that a steady reduction in violent crime is followed by a steady increase in the volume of wine consumed in the USA. That was between 1994 and 2004.

Wine consumption is negatively correlated to crime

Here is the graph which plots US total violent crime and wine volumes bought in the USA over the year. Conversely crime rise is followed by a decrease in wine consumption. It was the case in the USA between 1983 and 1994.

What does it prove? To me it demonstrates nothing. It only illustrates that statistics are not truthful in themselves. They even may appear to show a relationship where there is none. Some people may even use them to mislead. (I stop at the top of the slippery slope of politics but feel free to comment.)

US growth and global warmingHere is another nice illustration: US growth and global warming are highly correlated. The chart plots US GDP and yearly average anomaly of temperatures worldwide. Maybe it could mean that an unstable climate is good for your wealth? Obviously it does not. It only illustrates a point that is being proven at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This point roughly is that the output of material goods induces climate change.

The technique of wine tasting

Monday, January 21st, 2008

There are two distinct types of wine tasting: “technical” or “hedonistic.”
They differ in method and purpose.

Technical tasting is for the professionnals. The principal aim is to assess a wine from a commercial viewpoint, does the wine have any faults, is it typical of its origin, can it be treated as an investment or should it be sold quickly? Such tastings are not organised with the pleasurable experience of wine drinking in mind, this is strictly business.

Hedonistic tastings are all about pleasure: the taster experiences the wine in the best possible conditions. Such tasting should be educational and should enable the participants to increase their knowledge of the product.

The two types of tastings do however overlap and neither should be pursued at the expense of the other. The most rewarding experience for the drinker comes from combining strict technique and the pleasurable art of tasting. Acquiring the technical expertise for tasting is really a matter of mastering a series of opertations which after a time becomes automatic.


It’s amazing how little most of us know about something we do as often as eating and drinking. Much has been written explaining what happens to food and drink once it enters our digestive system but very little is to be found on the complexed process known as tasting. Most of us realise that chewing our food helps prolong our enjoyment and that professional wine or tea tasters indulge in some unpleasant gargling. That, for the most of us constitues the sum total of our knowledge on the subject.


Taste centers of the tongue
A sophisticated organ or blotting paper? If we were to rely entirely on the tongue to inform us about our food and drink, we would spend our days in confusion and disappointment. The human tongue is after all, fairly crude, only able to distinguish four basic sentations : sweet, sour, salt
and bitter: each being recorded on specific area of the tongue.


What we call the “taste” of something is the composite impression it makes on our minds by what we sense through our nose and mouth. The human nose is in fact much more sensitive than the mouth. Without our sense of smell , we are unable to appreciate food or distinguish between easily.

When chewing, the vapors travel from the back of our mouth, up what is called the retro-nasal passage, to the same sensory organs. So what we call “tasting” actually includes quite a bit of unconscious “smelling.”


Standard texts on wine tasting point out at an early stage that three organs are involved : eyes, nose, mouth – in that order. Authors usually start by giving their readers detailed exposition of what the sense of sight can reveal about a wine.
It is true that professionnal wine tasters spend quite some time “eyeing” the wine before putting glass to lips. The wine society however is here to indulge in the joys of consumption and not to simply admire the visual pleasure of a glass of Claret. The eye does neverhtless have an important role to play even for the pleasure drinker, anticipating a fault. Hazy wine indicates some kind of malady and suggests an uncharacteristic taste is likely. If the wine is browner that one would normally expect, then the wine is probably oxidized. This is due to back storage
or an inferior cork. An unexpected sparkle will make the wine worse than it should. The wine may be going through an unintentional secondary fermentation in the bottles.

Wine crystals are quite harmless and also quite rare. The wine trade sick of having bottles returned , now go to great lenghts to remove the offending articles by freezing and filtering before bottling. Bits of cork or deposits from the lip of the bottle in your glass are due to
careless opening and/or poor service.


Condition and environment:

The taster must be in good health, there is a little point in attempting to savour the joys of the wine with a cold. For best results , the palate must be fresh and have had no recent contact with spicy foods, chocolate, mints or tobacco. The average palate is most alert between 10-11:00 am.

The setting is also very important. Ideally the room should be free from strong odours (including the perfume of the tasters) and well lit, preferably natural light. The ideal temperature should be about 20°-22°C.

Finally the glassware used should be thin scrupulously clean and tulip shaped.

Wine and cheese pairing

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

While there exist no fixed gastronomic rules as to what wine goes best with what cheese, there are many choices to explore. There are a multitude of combinations which are subjective and will vary with the individual palate. However, there exist certain guidelines that will help you in selecting the right balance.

Livarot, Pasti, Fourme D'Ambert - Small Cheese Platter - Wine and Cheese Providores

The flavour of the cheese and wine should be at the same level.
This prevents one from over-powering the other. Strong and powerful tasting wines goes well with cheeses of the same profile, likewise a delicate tasting cheese should be accompanied by a subtle tasting wine.

Selecting a wine from the same region where the cheese comes from often guarantees success.
Gastronomic culture and neighboring land helps to contribute to a complementary savour.

Generally speaking red wine is paired with hard cheese and white wine is paired with soft cheeses.
The above is a general guideline – enjoy!