The case for using aluminium screwcaps to close wine bottles has long and convincingly been made. Few people, I imagine, would seriously argue that they are not efficient and convenient for the job at hand. The problem for the surgent screwcap industry remains obdurate, however: the case against cork (as opposed to arguments in favour of screwcaps) has not so far proved sufficiently compelling to the overwhelming majority of the world’s makers and drinkers of top wine.
Many presumably disinterested commentators seem to think it should have been, however, including critic Michael Fridjhon and producer Ken Forrester. Both spoke as passionate advocates for screwcaps at the pleasant PR function offered last week at Jordan restaurant in Stellenbosch by a coalition of the European Aluminium Foil Association, Guala Closures and Hulamin. Together, on imagines, they could happily afford the lunch.
The last of that trio is a “mid-stream aluminium semi-fabricator and fabricator of aluminium products” which is opening an aluminium recycling plant in Pietermaritzburg next year – aluminium is marvellously recyclable, it seems; a point in favour of screwcaps, which is generally seen as less “green” than cork. (You must remember, please, to leave the screwcaps on when you take your bottles for recycling, as I’m sure you do – the aluminium will get filtered out for re-use).
Incidentally, I should point out to careless readers that I am a particular friend of neither the cork nor the screwcap producers (unlike most local hacks, I’ve never even been offered a freebie to Portugal to get the full-on cork propaganda). I rarely open noticeably corked bottles, but the last time I did was only a few weeks back – a mid-priced bottle of Piedmontese nebbiolo.
I don’t want to rehearse any of the pro-screwcap arguments here – they seem plentiful and valid. Those arguments were what the industry spokespeople put forward at last week’s event, leaving Michael and Ken to work as their shock troops. Michael did so largely via a lengthy, elaborate analogy (old-fashioned, “natural” paint damaging cars while a modern synthetic paint does the job better – so why stick to the old stuff?), which was as convincing and relevant as most analogies – entertaining and offering clarity, but evading complexities and hardly proving the point.
Ken’s address (via video) was blunter and less eloquent, but operated from the same basic premise: that the cork industry is still offering only a notably dodgy product. A “random piece of bark”, Ken sneered, using “300-year-old technology”. Which is, of course, arrant nonsense that I hope the aluminium guys there were a little embarrassed by (or maybe they wanted it said, which is why they brought in others to say it for them!).
The best natural corks are, in fact, far from “random”, and produced with the aid of thoroughly modern processes; so-called “technical corks” (complex agglomerate versions such as Diam) are also produced by highly sophisticated treatments of a natural product and are, whatever Ken says, practically homogeneous.
I don’t have figures, but it is surely true that significant spoilage resulting from corks (TCA, random oxidation) occurs mostly with the cheapest versions (natural or composite). Some claim that problems remain with TCA-free, top-end composite Diam – but, then, others claim fundamental problems with screwcaps, and there are a few Antipodean producers who have returned to using corks after a time with screwcaps – presumably not for the “whimsical romance” that Ken Forrester suggests as the only reason for cork’s irritating persistence.
If it’s the case that it is cheaper corks that are the most significant problem, then a reasonable wine-industry strategy would be for those who cannot afford to use really good quality corks to progressively replace them with better closures, like screwcaps, leaving highest-end wines to use better quality natural or agglomerate corks. Which is what seems to be actually happening, except in Australia and New Zealand.
The screwcap industry and its evangelists will not see their darlings become universal for some time – certainly not until cynosure Bordeaux and Burgundy take to them (not to mention the conservative, rich winelovers of the USA and China). Eventually, perhaps, it’ll come to pass, but social expressions of desire and taste can move slowly.
Delight in grand wines relies partly on a kind of quasi-aesthetic aura – perhaps going a little deeper than Ken’s “whimsical romance”. Most of us, I’d suggest, enjoy a bit of ceremony when a special bottle is being opened, a little suspenseful delay, a little anticipatory fuss, even a little anxiety – little foreplay, as it were. It’s part of an experience which goes beyond the contents of the bottle. A quick flick of the wrist, and a trivial tinkle as a brilliantly functional screwcap drops on the table, doesn’t quite do it.