My Round: Screw caps on wine

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The Independent Online

I don't know if other wine-drinkers play my Most Expensive Cork Game (patent pending). MECG keeps track of the wines you've opened that were tainted with TCA – tri-chloroanisole 3. Brief lecture: TCA is a mould that can grow on cork that has been exposed (by rain or washing) to even small amounts of chlorine. When the infected cork is used to close a wine bottle, it gives the resident fluid a smell like damp cellars or cardboard left out in the rain. The wine is ruined. This is what is meant by "corked" wine.

I don't know if other wine-drinkers play my Most Expensive Cork Game (patent pending). MECG keeps track of the wines you've opened that were tainted with TCA – tri-chloroanisole 3. Brief lecture: TCA is a mould that can grow on cork that has been exposed (by rain or washing) to even small amounts of chlorine. When the infected cork is used to close a wine bottle, it gives the resident fluid a smell like damp cellars or cardboard left out in the rain. The wine is ruined. This is what is meant by "corked" wine.

Lecture over, back to MECG, which is nothing more complicated than keeping track of the most expensive corked bottle you've had. My MECG personal best was a bottle of one of the new generation of Chilean "super-premium" wines, which cost around £35, but I hadn't paid for the wine – and it was overpriced in any case. I know people who have had corked class-growth claret from outstanding older vintages – wines that would now retail for £75 or £100. One poor sod told me he opened two bottles of precious Burgundy for a special occasion. The first smelled fine, so he poured it into a decanter. The next one went into the same decanter, this time without the sniff-test. Yes, of course. The second bottle was corked.

So here's some good news: the screw cap bandwagon keeps rolling along. Screw caps, yes, just like the ones on soft drinks. The wine trade calls them Stelvin, the name used by the French company that makes them. Last year over a third of Riesling producers in the Clare Valley of Australia announced their intention to move to screw caps. A similar initiative was launched in New Zealand, and included such world-class stars as Goldwater Estates, Neudorf and Kumeu River.

Kumeu's winemaker, Michael Brajkovich, puts the case for screw caps: "We now know that using Stelvin will mean an immediate improvement in the overall quality of our wines, and will not detract in any way from their ability to continue to mature elegantly in the bottle." Their cork tests had found TCA taint running at over 30 per cent in some batches, whereas screw cap closures produce "'pristine' characters" 100 per cent of the time and do not affect a wine's ability to develop in the bottle. There are also signs of movement in California, where Napa's Plumpjack winery has put its very expensive Cabernet in screwy bottles.

New World producers have tried with screw caps before, and failed. But I'm reasonably optimistic – like most commentators who don't have a vested interest in the cork industry – that the screw's time has come, because retailers are jumping on the bandwagon. First comes a mailing from everywine.co.uk saying it's selling Kim Crawford Marlborough Riesling 2001 (£90.10 a case) in screw caps and explaining why. Then a missive from Tesco. It has 26 antipodeans under the classy closures, including the very sound Little Boomey wines (£5.99), the entry-level Rawsons Retreat Bin 202 Riesling 2001 (£4.99), and Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2001 (£8.99). Jackson sent out a case of its Sauvignon some months ago with both cork and screws. In all cases, as far as my palate could tell, the wines under screw caps tasted fresher and cleaner.

The arguments against screw caps are mostly emotional. It's fun pulling a cork, especially with a pricey bottle, when the whole ceremony is like vinous foreplay. I don't dismiss the emotional side of things. It's just that I'd rather follow foreplay with an equally satisfying experience – drinking wine that doesn't taste like a toadstool after heavy rain. MECG may be an amusing game when you're tasting press samples. When you're spending hard-earned cash, whether £5 or £50, it's a crime against wine. Send in the screws! Or are they already here? *

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