The question is how to keep this sleazy good-for-nothing “Air” who’s hell-bent on destruction from despoiling your beautiful princess and turning her into a moldy, foul-smelling crone?
That’s the choice all winemakers must make when they bottle their wine. How are they going to keep Air from getting his grubby hands on their baby before she’s ready? Air will turn that ripe and sweet smelling debutante into a slutty bottle of no good vinegar. We don’t even want them shaking hands until the time is right.
The age-old answer to the dilemma of how to seal a bottle of wine is found on the Iberian Peninsula (that’s Spain and Portugal for the “Geography for $1000, Alex”-challenged) in the wrapping of Quercus Suber. In English we’re talking about the bark of the cork oak tree, but it’s not a quick solution. Those majestic oaks take 15-25 years to mature and only then can the cork be harvested – but only once every 9 years.
The process of harvesting cork is quite amazing. The bark is stripped, usually in mid-summer, by hand, in large sections several feet wide and up to 10 feet in length. (The cork oak is one of the few trees that will not die from having its bark stripped, and in fact the regrowth is denser and of better quality). The bark is stored for 9 months, then washed, dried, stacked and ultimately trimmed into workable lengths. Like me, you might imagine the cork is punched out horizontally from the bark, but actually the bark is cut into strips, and the corks are hand-punched out vertically (with the grain) which makes them stronger and more resilient.
One mature cork oak can yield over 4,000 corks. Those corks are light, compress well and their texture helps them produce a tight seal in a wine bottle. But Air is a slippery little bugger, and if a wine bottle with a cork is not stored lying down to keep the cork damp and expanded Air will get by the shrunken cork and deliver unspeakable horrors to your beloved.
Statistically, 2 to 5% of bottles with corks are ruined because of bad cork or bad storage, or both. Faulty corks generate a nasty chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6 Trichloroanisole) or what them street kids call “cork taint.” Taint gives wine a musty, wet cardboardy character, the same sort of flavor that your missing gym sock had when you found it after a couple of months in the bottom of the hamper.
There are a lot of traditions in winemaking, and sealing the bottle with a cork is one of them, but think about this for a moment: The winemaker nurtures the soil, carefully tends the grapes, waits for just the right amount of sugar content, scrutinizes the fermentation, sterilizes the bottles and then stuffs a hunk of tree bark in the neck of that bottle. Does that make any sense to you? No, me either.
So, is there a better way to keep that dastardly Air out of your wine’s knickers?
To the rescue is Stelvin, which rhymes with Melvin. The Stelvin closure is often denigratingly referred to as a screw cap. Thanks in large part to the wines of my college days, the “screwy” developed the stigma that if wine has a screw cap it can’t possibly be good. Because back in the 70s if you were drinking Ripple or Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, chances are you were on a park bench drinking it out of a paper bag while trying to figure out how to tell your folks you flunked out. That didn’t happen to me. Really.
In practice, however, the Stelvin is superior to cork in every way except ritual. I mean, who doesn’t like pulling a cork out of a wine bottle? Stelvin closures create a seal that all but defies Air. Their failure rate is virtually nil, and consistency of flavor is just about guaranteed. It’s like sending your daughter to the Prom with Seal Team 6 as chaperones. This almost non-existent failure rate is why 90% of wine from New Zealand and 75% of wine from Australia is arriving on these shores with Stelvin closures. There are many $100+ bottles using Stelvin closures, so it’s time to get passed the Ripple recoil.
Interestingly, in a blind tasting this past March at one of Italy’s most important trade shows, Italian wine professionals chose identical wines with Stelvins over their counterparts sealed with corks. Ironic, since Stelvin closures are illegal in Italy for DOCG (see 14 May post) wines.
Just can’t bring yourself to buy a “screwy?” Well, as screwy as that is, don’t worry, there are still other good options.
Do you know what you get if you cross a zipper and a cork? And no, it’s not a scene out of “There’s Something About Mary.”
It’s a Zork! Zorks were invented in Australia (naturally), and they seal like a screw cap and pop like a cork. They have an easy zipper pull and a reusable stopper, and best of all, the whole unit is recycleable. Speaking of recycling – bin94wines has a cork recycling program that benefits the Hudson Valley SPCA. Bring in your used wine corks and deposit them in the giant wine glass on the counter, because every time we fill it we donate $25 to the HVSPCA. How great is that?
There is still one other stopper I’d like to mention, though you don’t see it very often, and that’s the Vinolok, an elegant crystal closure with an O-ring that creates an hermetic seal in the bottle. It works as well as either the Stelvin or the Zork, but since they cost 70¢ apiece not many producers use them. Seems like a small price to pay to keep Air’s grubby mitts off your wine.
Please come by bin94 to pick up wine with a variety of closures and see which one you prefer to foil Air’s creeping fingers. Here are a few suggestions:
Katherine Goldschmidt Crazy Creek Alexander Valley (CA) 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine tastes like luscious ripe blackberries dipped in dark chocolate. ‘Nuff said. Sealed with a real cork.
Carlton Cellars Seven Devils 2012 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, OR): Rich with ripe cranberry, pomegranate, cherry and barbeque spice. Sealed with a Stelvin Closure.
Plungerhead 2012 Lodi (CA) Zinfandel: Lots of rich black plum and berry, licorice and dark cocoa. Soft tannins and mouthcoating finish. All this yumminess sealed with a Zork.
Hecht & Bannier 2014 Rosé (Côtes de Provence, France): A blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah this perfect rosé is crisp, elegant and loaded with tropical fruit and hints of strawberry and cherry. Sealed with the beautiful glass Vinolok. (Try reusing the bottle to store infused olive oils.)
‘Til next time