To cork or not to cork?

| October 16, 2021 | 0 Comments
Frank Cornelissen makes his natural wine in these hills of Sicily. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Frank Cornelissen makes his natural wine in these hills of Sicily. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Despite being the first step in opening a bottle of wine, the closure is often the last thing that we put any thought into.
Traditionally, cork has been the closure of choice as it provides a near-airtight seal that allows minute oxygen interplay, a necessity for wines that require long cellaring times, aiding the evolution of the wine’s fruit set anywhere from leathered to honeyed, softening tannins and rounding out acidities; think an aged Barolo or Mosel Riesling.
Natural cork is a cylindrically bored layer of the cork oak’s bark. These are considered best for long-term ageing compared to agglomerated corks, which use the trimmings and dusts leftover from the cork-cutting process, reconstituted with food-safe materials.
The downside of cork is, of course, corked wine. Cork taint’s chemical compound (trichloroanisole, or TCA) occurs when processing the wood with antimicrobial agents. At its best, cork taint will mute a wine’s bouquet, while at its worst, it will leave it smelling of musty basement and wet cardboard. Improvements in the industry’s production have lowered instances of TCA: depending on where you read it, 3 per cent to 8 per cent of all wines are corked — enough to allow guests at restaurants to taste the wine before they buy and occurring in high- and low-end wines indiscriminately.
Synthetic closure manufacturers push this narrative along, highlighting their ability to prevent TCA spoilage. While screw caps — Stelvins — offer a hermetic seal, their ability to store wines for any length of time is still hotly debated. Some winemakers bottle their still wines under crown cap, much like a beer or sparkling wine as they’re meant for more immediate enjoyment. Synthetic corks, too, are best for short-term storage as they can allow too much oxygen in too quickly.
Frank Cornelissen, a natural winemaker in Sicily, known for his volcanic terroir-driven wines, employs a highly engineered hybrid closure. Cornelissen finds that this bullet-shaped capsule gives a consistent result throughout vintages while still allowing a minute amount of air interplay and preventing cork taint; a seemingly goldilocks solution.
Beyond the practical applications, capsule types have a financial and environmental impact as well. Cork can only be harvested from quarter-century-old trees every nine years. Synthetic corks were traditionally plastic-based while a growing number of environmentally friendly alternatives are becoming available. Not only does a natural cork cost the most, it also looks the nicest. From a marketing standpoint, Stelvin enclosures still face the inaccurate assertion that it means that the wine is cheap.
In the 1970s, due to high market demands for Birkenstocks, along with established wine countries demanding the best cork, secondary wine regions were left with poor-quality corks, resulting in regularly corked and faulty wines. As such, it almost seems as though Australia passed a law that all closures on its wines should be Stelvins. Even today, more than 85 per cent of Australian wines are under Stelvin.
What was once a small economy based on supplying the local villages with barrels of wine has evolved throughout the years as globalization and wine has permeated cultures and national boundaries. Shipping supply routes have changed and lighter glass is used to offset carbon footprints. Liquor laws have been implemented that were previously unnecessary.
This past century has seen an explosion in advancements in chemical use and agricultural equipment, and yet the cork, a simple and effective closure, has yet to be topped.

When Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock isn’t talking wine and pulling corks at Fauna, chances are his nose is either in a glass or in a wine book.

Be Sociable, Share!


Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock manages the wine lists at Jabberwocky and Union 613.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *