DON'T PUT A CORK IN IT

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT
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The Independent Culture
Imagine that one of every 10 to 15 cartons of orange juice had a faulty seal which rendered the juice undrinkable. Imagine that the manufacturer knew that the seals might carry the fatal flaw. Imagine that a different kind of seal would solve the problem - but that consumers have to be begged to accept it.

That scenario exists, but the fluid in question isn't orange juice. It's wine. Something between 5 and 10 per cent of corks used in wine bottles will ruin the bottle's contents. Yet we consumers still prefer them, even though plastic in any form is a far better sealant.

What is wrong with these glamorous, "natural" stoppers? They leak, for one. They shrink, letting in air and therefore ruination. They may give off dust which is difficult to remove from wine. And worst of all, corks produce "corking", which can ruin any bottle from industrial-grade Liebfraumilch to Chateau Margaux.

Corked wine is dreadfully common, yet there is still confusion about it. A 1996 NOP survey for Penfolds found that only one in seven wine drinkers knew the meaning of the term. For the record, corked wine is wine that has picked up a taint from a cork-borne fungus called 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA). The wine is perfectly good when it goes into the bottle, but contact with a TCA-tainted cork (unidentifiable before bottling) ruins it. The wine tastes mouldy, or musty, or woody. At a recent tasting someone used the terms "dank cellar" and "wet socks", which are strikingly apt.

Corked bottles can show up anywhere. At the dinner announcing the 1997 International Wine Challenge awards, my table had a corked bottle of Montana Marlborough Reserve Chardonnay 1996 (pounds 5.99, widely available). Only later, when I got hold of another bottle, did I learn why the wine had won a Gold Medal. It is one of the most heavenly marriages of oak and fruit you'll find this side of paradise. Or this side of a 10-pound note, at any rate. Producers and retailers have long been nudging consumers towards accepting that Plastic is Beautiful, and Tesco is the latest proselytiser. In a new initiative launched this Wednesday, they've done special screw- top bottlings of five mid-priced wines, and will be selling them in-store with plastic-friendly quotes from journalists (including yours truly). Among their screwy wines, all on special offer until 5 November, are Rylands Grove Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc, a South African combining freshness and complexity of fruit, and the delicious LaPerouse Vin de Pays d'Oc, red and white, made with input from the Penfolds gang. The Chenin is pounds 3.49 from pounds 3.99, the d'Ocs are pounds 3.99 from pounds 4.99.

The best known cork initiative is that of Southcorp Wines, the Australian group which owns Penfolds, Lindemans and other estimable brands. After extensive research found TCA in almost 50 per cent of cork trees tested, they bottled their 1995 Bin 2 Shiraz-Mourvedre with screw-caps and invited buyers to answer questions on the result. Most approved, and Penfolds will do the same with the 1996 vintage. They are also investing in a polyethylene closure called Aegis which we're sure to see a lot more of.

Aside from the solitary Penfolds, it's hard to find a "quality" wine in a screw-cap bottle. Some supermarkets have encountered stiff resistance, and even the dare-devils at Oddbins won't be stocking a single screw-cap bottle until the 1996 Bin 2 arrives this autumn.

While all this resistance suggests that Tesco has its work cut out, in the long run you'd better get used to plastic. Liz Robertson MW, of Safeway, thinks it may be five years before consumer acceptance is complete, but she has no doubt that acceptance is inevitable. "This train," she says, "isn't turning back."

Needless to say, some of the fun would go out of wine-drinking if screw- caps replaced corks. No more nasty cuts under your thumbnail while peeling off the foil capsule. No more straining to pull a dry cork, and turning purple in the face, while trying desperately to impress the hot prospect you've invited over for a candle-lit seduction dinner. No more unloading perfectly chilled bottles from the picnic hamper and then discovering that someone forgot to pack a corkscrew. No more spending money on wine racks.

And no more TCA, too. I can't wait.

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