What a corker

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The Independent Culture
If you buy shopsoiled goods, cheaper than normal, you accept that their condition is less than perfect. Pay the full whack, though, and you expect the product to be of merchantable quality. In the case of wine, you're playing a form of lottery. One in 20 bottles is affected by cork taint, which can make a wine smell like sweaty feet, mouldy walnuts or rotting vegetables.

Terry Lee, professor of oenology at the University of Adelaide, who has studied the issue for the Australian wine industry, believes that "the off-flavour transferred from the cork to the wine is possibly the greatest technical problem facing wine makers". He is not alone.

Cork taint is not a new problem but it's an increasingly serious one, and has steadily eaten away at the wine trade's ability to present sound wines to the consumer. The cork industry, according to Professor Lee, "has been grossly negligent in allowing this problem to jeopardise all bottled wine. The day is approaching when synthetics will make their life extremely difficult."

Fed up with the inability of the cork industry to solve the problem, the wine trade is looking at new ways of guaranteeing clean wines. Last year, Marks & Spencer introduced corks made of a French vinyl acetate called Tage on 15 of their wines. The corks are so discreet that you would hardly notice the difference. "We're happy with them," says wine buyer Jane Kay, "and we're looking to extend them." By way of a contrast, you could hardly miss the bright yellow plastic cork recently introduced on Safeway's 1995 Semillon/Chardonnay. Safeway are enthusiastic about the new cork. "It's the best seal yet," says quality controller Liz Robertson. "There's no squeal or judder, and you can put it back in easily if you haven't finished the wine." It is expensive, though, and producers are not keen to bear the cost.

This spring, Sainsbury's will convert to Tage vinyl corks for 12 French wines, and their drinks supremo Allan Cheesman sees this as the first step to plastic corks for all but the most expensive fine wines.

But will we like them? No one wants to be seen as the spoilsport who took the romance out of wine. At least there's no immediate prospect of pulling a plastic stopper from a bottle of Chateau Latour. Then there are environmental considerations. Do plastic corks degrade? Are they non-toxic?

There does seem to be a certain hesitancy about how much to tell consumers. Mike Paul of Penfolds feels that there is an instinctive preference for natural cork, and perhaps the positive aspects of plastic should be emphasised: "Supermarkets need to explain to customers that buying a case comes with a guarantee that no bottle will be corked." Jane Kay says, "Customers have reacted positively when told, but we do need to do more explaining, perhaps on the back label, to get the message across."

Is the imitation cork just a step on the way to the pilfer-proof screw top, as seen on whisky and sherry bottles? It has passed the long-term leakproof test and, at a recent tasting in Paris, experts couldn't tell the difference. But public acceptance may be slow: screw tops are still associated with down-market Liebfraumilch and lambrusco.

Bob Trinchero, of Sutter Home, is one of a number of Californian producers who are trying out screw tops. Allan Cheesman thinks that Sainsbury's may well give them a try for fine wines. So it could happen here, and my guess is that, sooner or later, it will

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