Corks vs screw tops

news: Corks vs screw tops

RECENTLY, the Daily Telegraph featured an article entitled “How to open a screw-top wine bottle, with panache”. At first I thought it was a joke, but, after reading it a few times, I realised it was serious.

Believe it or not, Villa Maria, New Zealand’s largest private winery, has produced a training film to help restaurant staff open screw-top bottles with “flourish”. Instead of twisting the top with your hand, it should be rolled off on your forearm. Imagine, after breaking the seal, running the jagged tin down your bare arm and catching the top in your hand. Better keep the first-aid box handy and don’t tell the health and safety inspector!

George Fistonich, the owner, is convinced that screw tops offer better quality wine, while corks inferior quality. It could be that his vineyard needs to produce a better quality wine! Admittedly, New Zealand has a very erratic climate. As Fistonich knows, constant viticulture and vigilance can help overcome these problems, resulting in good grapes. Then, with his expert vinification, he’ll make good wine, screw tops won’t do it for him. Me? I’d concentrate on making wine. Villa Maria produces Reserve and Private Bin wines, which should have a few years bottle age before selling. I wonder how well the tin ages…

Gearoid Devaney, a Paris-trained sommelier, visited Australia where they produce the same Pinot Noir using a screw top and a cork. He thought the screw top was better. I know it was only a personal opinion, but the inference was that the screw top made it a better wine. I think he confused personal taste with quality, but many people do that. Why point out to a customer the bottle has a screw top? To me, it sounds like he’s making an excuse in case the wine is off. If a sommelier has enough confidence in the wine to stock and sell it, then he shouldn’t apologise for the packaging.

Michelin-starred restaurants get their stars if the food is good. Where Mr. Devaney works, in South Kensington, I don’t think the quality of the wines match that of the food. I honestly cannot see any châteaux in Bordeaux, which produce the largest amount of high quality wine on earth, switching to screw tops.

This also applies to good Burgundies and all Portuguese wines. Portugal is the sixth biggest wine producer in the world and has the largest cork industry in Europe, ranking alongside Italy, France and Spain as one of the great wine countries of Western Europe. These countries use corks for their better quality wines. So, I wonder what quality of wine is sold in that London restaurant… I don’t think I’ll bother to find out.

I’m not against screw tops, but they won’t change the quality of the wine. However, to say they will replace corks in five years’ time (Mr. Ray, Daily Telegraph’s wine correspondent) or “thedays of the cork are numbered” (Mr. Devaney) is nonsense. Corks will always be around in the world of wine. Mr. Ray says, “the ritual waiters go through is mostly baloney”. Wrong again, Mr. Ray. It’s not “baloney”, it’s important.

There may not be any risk of wine being corked if you use screw tops, but the cheap tin used on the tops is suspect. I wonder if this tin will stand up to 30 or 40 years in a cellar? A corked wine doesn’t mean it has gone off, as the article said. The cork is not affected by any chemical. A vein in the cork ruptures and a musty smell is released, tainting the wine.A wine has gone off when the volatile acidity (acetic acid) takes over and the wine tastes like vinegar.

In 1863, T.G.Shaw wrote Wine, the Vine and the Cellar and commented: “I was convinced 40 years ago – and the conviction remains to this day – that in wine tasting and wine talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.” After reading that Daily Telegraph article, it seems nothing has changed since 1863.

The unbelievable has happened

I went into a bar/restaurant in Praia da Luz and asked which Portuguese wine they had. I was told they didn’t sell Portuguese wine. I politely pointed out that we were in Portugal. “Yes, but you’re in an English bar” was the reply. So I asked for a bottle of English wine and was told they only sell Spanish and Chilean wines.

Just think about it: you’re in Praia da Luz, you go into a bar/restaurant and you ask for some of the country’s wine. But because it’s an English bar, in Portugal, you cannot buy Portuguese wine. Nor can you buy English wine for that matter. If I’d been Richard Wilson from One Foot in The Grave, I’d have said: “I don’t believe it”. There’s no doubt, the world has tilted…or at least in Praia da Luz it has!

Next issue: Understanding Spanish wine labels. I have a few questions to answer too, but I can’t neglect Judy again. Judy, at least I was able to tell you a good Portuguese story this time and one which will take some beating!