Throughout man’s relationship with wine the challenge has been to find a way of bringing it to the customer. We get a glimpse of one of the earliest solutions in the The New Testament Matthew 9:14-17 and the parable of putting new wine in old skins. Even when I was a child, some 2000 years later, Spanish lorry drivers kept wine in ‘bota‘ – tear shaped leather bottles.
Solid flasks or carafes were used throughout history to bring wine from the storage vessel – amphorae in ancient times and wooden casks in mediæval – to the table. These were often stoneware, but glass was favoured by the wealthy. They slowly evolved into the wine bottles of today and we get glimpses of them still in the Tuscan fiasco and Germanic bocksbeutel. They were a convenience only though, no one thought to keep wine in them until a closure became available.
The ancients knew about cork, but it was not until the 17th century that the knowledge was rediscovered. It was a turning point, here was a way to seal your carafe and keep the wine in good condition for long periods of time. This led directly to all sorts of developments that we take for granted today.
Bottles slowly took on modern shapes and over time the concept of selling wine in bottle became the universal standard. Corkscrews evolved and wine racks became a normal piece of equipment as the concept of ageing wine in bottle became widespread. The cork came to be seen as an integral part of wine and even today the pop of a cork being extracted is one of the great sounds. Many people continue to like wine sealed with a cork because of the ritual it enforces on the opening of the bottle.
It seems that a cork lets in a very slow trickle of air, this softens a wine and matures it perfectly. It is this quality which makes a good natural cork the closure of choice for really fine wines.
As cork has been used for so long it also gives a nice touch of tradition and they certainly appear more artisan than other types of closure. In addition of course the cork can be reused quite easily as a bottle stopper.
Apart from doing a good job of sealing a bottle and being directly responsible for much of the evolution of quality wine, the best thing about cork is that it is a natural product and renewable resource. Corks are made from the bark of the cork oak tree, so are biodegradable and can be recycled. Best of all demand for corks keeps large oak forests in existence which help in the struggle against global warming.
Strangely man is responsible for cork’s most famous downside. A ‘corked’ wine is a purely modern phenomenon with chemical compounds being released into the atmosphere by – depending on who you ask – the World Wars or industry. So it is fitting that modern technology seems to have made high levels of ‘corked’ wine virtually a thing of the past when 10 or so years ago finding a ‘corked’ bottle was a daily occurrence.
So cork has served us well, but we must not fall into the trap of thinking it is the only proper solution to sealing wine just because it is the most traditional. A cork is perfect for wines that need long ageing, but one of the great benefits of modern winemaking is that wines simply do not need to be aged that much. The fruit is generally better managed and riper than when I was young, therefore most wines are softer and more full of fruit than they used to be – and yes one by product of that is higher alcohol too.
All this means that the majority of modern wine does not need to be aged to make it drinkable, which is handy because most wine is consumed on the day it is purchased.
It just so happens that these modern wines coincided with a brief period when cork taint was rife. The problem was so widespread that many people assumed cork itself was a bad material and had to be replaced, so the trade sought alternatives at the same time as trying to eliminate the problem of tainted corks.
Luckily for us it seems that both have succeeded and we now have a range of options to seal a bottle.
Synthetic corks are cheap to make compared to natural cork. They still require a corkscrew, so retain something of the ritual and can be made to look just like natural cork, although some producers ring the changes with an array of vibrant colours.
What’s more they do a good job of sealing a bottle for the short term and they especially suit the small wine producer as they do not need special machinery to put them in. Any old corking machine will do.
Although all synthetic corks pretty much eliminate cork taint, some are more successful than others. From my experience I would say that the ones that more resemble natural corks are the best and I am glad to say that their use seems to have become dominant – certainly in the UK. They are made by Normacorc and they have a softer, more squidgy consistency which makes them act much more like a real cork. They are pliable, so easier to extract from the bottle than most other types, they don’t get stuck on your corkscrew once they are out and what’t more can be pushed back into the neck of the bottle to be used as a stopper. For most wines that you are not intending to keep for too long Normacorc is perfect and if you perform a little sleight of hand your guests will never notice it isn’t sealed with a real cork.
The dominant synthetic closure though is the screw cap. As a practical seal for wine they have been around since the 1950s, but for many decades consumers associated them with cheap wines and didn’t really change their view – in the UK anyway – until the 2000s. This was when the New Zealand and Australian industries embraced screw caps as a way of reducing the ‘Russian Roulette’ of cork taint and preserving the bright fruit in their wines.
They are such an efficient seal that today many producers consider screw caps to be the most perfect closure for bright, fruit forward wines that do not need ageing – like rosés or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
They are wonderfully convenient too as you don’t need a corkscrew and they stopper an unfinished bottle easily and efficiently. In fact the only real problem is the aesthetic one, but the main producers, Stelvin, have tackled this with their Stelvin Lux. The thread on the neck of the bottle is invisible, which makes it a very elegant solution.
Snobs & Bigots
Personally it astonishes me that many people still think that wines should only be sealed with a cork. I come across this view surprisingly frequently and can see no place for it. Consumers often have a harmless romanticised notion of a cork as a sign of tradition, but some affect a snobbish conviction that only wine sealed with a cork is somehow worthy of attention. I have even known sommeliers claim that the cork is part of the wine, so nothing else is acceptable.
Personally I consider all that nonsense. The cork is the seal, and we should choose our wine based upon how it tastes, not how it is sealed. If people only buy wines with a cork they are denying themselves many wonderful taste experiences.
Of course the reverse view can also be found. I have read reports that some consumers in New Zealand and Australia are so against cork that they heap vitriol on producers who use them. Surely it is up to the producer to decide what is best for their wine and up to the consumer to decide whether they like it or not based upon how the wine tastes.
What’s more if people get all hot under the collar now what are they going to do in the future when technology will surely give us many more types of closure?
Of course there are other solutions too, excitingly there is now also a closure called Zork, a sort of plastic screw cap that retains some of the ritual of pulling a cork. Opening it even gives you the sound of a cork being removed and they look good too.
I also rather like the look of glass stoppers and am surprised that they have not caught on. This method is actually at least as old as cork, but historically glass stoppers were difﬁcult to make. They remained in use though well into the 19th century and have recently made a modest come back. They look elegant and work brilliantly as a stopper for unﬁnished wine.
It doesn’t end there of course, once we get over the preconception that our wine has to be in a bottle, then almost anything is possible. For everyday wine, bag-in-box and Tetra Pak are perfect seals, as are ring-pull cans and plastic bottles – as long as we are conﬁdent in our choice and not embarrassed by the judgement of others.
Personally I worry more about what the wine tastes like than how it is packaged.
Let’s all keep an open mind, after all it’s the wine .