My Round: To cap it all

As the old battle of cork versus screw rages on, more and more people are seeking closure on the subject of closure
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Although I rarely leap at a chance to make predictions about trends for the year ahead, one you can make with confidence in the world of wine is that debates about closure will go on and on. Not closure in the pop-psychology sense, but in the bottling sense. As in, "I just want a closure that won't make my claret taste like the mould on a cellar floor." The mouldy taste comes from TCA, a compound found in up to six per cent of corks according to most estimates - though I've been to tastings where the figure was closer to 10 per cent.

Although I rarely leap at a chance to make predictions about trends for the year ahead, one you can make with confidence in the world of wine is that debates about closure will go on and on. Not closure in the pop-psychology sense, but in the bottling sense. As in, "I just want a closure that won't make my claret taste like the mould on a cellar floor." The mouldy taste comes from TCA, a compound found in up to six per cent of corks according to most estimates - though I've been to tastings where the figure was closer to 10 per cent.

The solution lies in alternatives to cork: cylinders made from synthetics or, the increasingly popular choice among producers, screw caps. Winemakers in New Zealand and Australia have led the way in embracing screw caps (often called Stelvin, after the leading manufacturer). Some companies, including the outstanding Villa Maria in New Zealand and Bonny Doon in California, have adopted them for all their wines. Producers in Europe are starting to follow their lead more enthusiastically, with adherents popping up in Chablis, Alsace, Germany and Spain. And most wine writers have approved, to one degree or another, because we taste too many wines that have been ruined - either flattened in flavour or made positively revolting - by cork taint.

There have always been voices of dissent, however, and they've had some reason recently to go on dissenting after reports of unpleasant aromas of hydrogen sulphide in screw-capped wines. The debate on this topic, some of the most interesting and learned of which has been appearing in the subscription-only Purple Pages of Jancis Robinson ( www.jancisrobinson.com), centres on a single question. Are screw caps too tight and non-absorbent a seal, and do they therefore trap in the wine some undesirable flavour and aroma compounds that a cork would remove? This is a gross simplification, but I'm assuming that you would have as much trouble as I in understanding the chemistry.

There is expert opinion on both sides of the question, and I don't think we've heard the last of it. But I will hazard an uneducated guess that many of the problems attributed to screw caps are problems in the wine, not the closure, and that winemakers will learn how to deal with the shortcomings of screw caps. And even now screw caps have a lot going for them. At a large blind-tasting held in Bordeaux last autumn, an international panel tried a group of wines under different types of closure. In the 40 wines where direct comparison was possible, the screw-capped wines were pronounced superior in 21 cases and the cork-closed wine in only one case. It is results such as these that win over converts, even those who make wines for long ageing, such as the outstanding New Zealand Felton Road winery.

Only time will tell whether a screw lets wine age as well as a cork, but in wines intended for fairly early drinking, screw caps still seem the obvious choice. Unless you want to take a chance that your wine will be ruined by a piece of bark.

Speaking of Felton Road: there's a sale offer worth chasing. Previously, I've written about the takeover of the La Réserve group by Jeroboams, and suggested that there might be consolidation as the two groups merged. One form of consolidation is a clearance sale, running till 31 January, which includes some outstanding bargains. The offer that catches my eye is Felton Road Pinot Noir 2003 for £15.95 a bottle, a £3 saving for this exceptional wine. Also worth grabbing are some of the great Ridge Zinfandels, which rank among California's greatest wines, for under £20 (tel: 020 7259 6716 or click on to www.jeroboams.co.uk).

Screw-capped pleasures

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2002, Hawke's Bay (£60.33/six bottles, www.everywine.co.uk) Fine ripe berry flavours well seasoned with spicy oak.

Pewsey Vale Riesling 2003, Eden Valley (£8.99, Oddbins, Thresher, Fortnum & Mason, Makro) Intense mineral flavours from one of Australia's Riesling stars.

Nepenthe Tryst Red 2002 (£6.99, Oddbins, Waitrose, Asda) A weird blend of Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon which works beautifully; big and spicy but supple and smooth.

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