By Jim Boyce
After Australian Embassy staff checked my bag, passed me through a metal detector, and gave me a cavity search (OK, scratch the last part), I joined four local wine journalists in Beijing last Tuesday for a video conference with iconic wine maker Wolf Blass and Foster’s Global Wine Ambassador George Samios. The event – jointly hosted by Austrade and ASC, which distributes Blass’ wine in China – focused on the use of screw caps on wine bottles.
I like screw caps. Some people say they prevent wine from maturing, but most wine is meant to be drunk right away. For newcomers to wine, screw caps eliminate the intimidation of pulling a cork. And the bottles are easy to store. Blass and Samios have additional reasons for favoring screw caps and further cite a study that finds Chinese consumers to be very open-minded to these closures. I will get to this shortly, but first a little history.
Blass said screw caps are fairly new to the wine sector, but have been used for over 100 years, particularly for spirits. In his winery’s case, they were used in the 1970s for a shipment of wine to Japan, where the bottles met with disapproval and were sent back. In the 1990s, he opened some of those returned bottles, under screw cap for more than 15 years. He found the wine fresh and fruity. “It was unbelievable,” he says, and “switched on a motor.” At the crossroads of corks and screw caps, he drove down the latter.
Blass and Samios cite problems with corks. Samios says wine makers originally found them useful to stop bottles from leaking, not because they were considered good for wine or its maturation. Cork is inconsistent in quality and easily attracts bacteria. It is elastic, making it useful as a stopper, but loses this quality from regular expansion and contraction, sometimes letting in too much air. And each cork affects wine differently, meaning 12 bottles in a single case can end up holding wine that ranges in quality from excellent to undrinkable.
Samios said that 8-10 percent of wines stopped by corks ends up spoiled – “no other beverage industry, such as beer or soda, would accept a 10 percent failure rate.”
The solution, they say, is screw caps. Here are some benefits they cite:
1) Bottles stopped with cork need horizontal storage to allow the wine to touch the wood and prevent it from drying out. Bottles with screw caps can be stored at any angle.
2) Bottles stopped with cork can vary greatly in quality. Those with screw caps provide more consistency when it comes to wine quality.
3) In the unfortunate case you have a partial bottle of wine left over, it can be more easily sealed by replacing a screw cap than by jamming the cork back in.
4) Cork adds woodiness. GS suggests that doubters put a cork into a glass water overnight and take a sip next morning.
5) Corks may evoke tradition and romance, but many consumers struggle to use corkscrews at home, while in many good restaurants, the sommelier opens and tastes the wine aside before bringing it to the table.
6) Although people associate corks with wine maturation, wine contains oxygen, and thus air is not needed via the cork.
The issue of whether wine can mature or not under screw cap drew the most questions. Simply put, have screw caps been around long enough to know their impact on the long-term storage of wine?
Samios cited a study that showed wine can mature in a sealed tube and noted that the Blass shipment of wine returned from Japan in the 1970s tasted fine when opened in the 1990s, while Blass said many airlines use screw cap mini-bottles and the wine within them tastes fine years later. “Screw tops have been around for ages,” he said. “But in our minds, it can only be used for cheap wines, for supermarket wines.”
They admit that the shift to screw caps meets resistance, especially from wine makers in places such as Bordeaux. Then again, they aim at the mass market and find openness in newer wine-producing countries. “We heard that no one in the U.S. and so on would buy screw tops; that no one would buy our Yellow Label,” said Samios. “But we’ve seen wine sales go up.”
Samios cited a commissioned study that asked consumers in a dozen countries whether a screw cap would make them more or less likely to buy the wine. China saw the highest proportion of respondents answer “more likely” – 59 percent, as opposed to 17 percent in Australia. Those stating “less likely” represented 17 percent and 20 percent respectively, while the remainder answered “no difference.” Interestingly, despite the apparent openness of Americans toward Yellow Label, the study finds that in the US, only 7 percent of respondents said they are “more likely” to buy wine with a screw top, as opposed to the 44 percent who said “less likely.” (Note: I am still waiting for more of the study details, such as the sample size.)
My question: If consumers in China are so open to screw caps, why do few local wineries use them?
Samios attributes it to French influence. Top-end wine buyers aspire to wines such as those of Bordeaux, where makers continue to focus on cork. But he notes that nations without a history of cork, such as Japan, are embracing screw caps.
He predicted Chinese makers would also move away from cork. “You’re going to find your own people are following the marketing trend,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily mean using screw tops, says Samios, as an even better innovation may be down the line.
We tried two pairs of Blass wines side by side – each pair including one sealed with cork and one sealed with screw cap. The Red Label Shiraz Cabernet 2006 screw cap was fruitier and fuller, with a more vibrant color, than its cork-closed counterpart. I found the difference less discernible with the Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. It would be interesting to try this taste test blind.
Look for Blass’ next adventure in closures next year – the winery plans to release its first screw cap Champagne. And he and Samios plan to visit China next year and, in the face of the concerns about wine maturing under screw caps, said they will bring some of those bottles from the 1970s for us to try.
Note: I have an interview in the pipeline with Ricardo Duarte, China representative of Amorim, among the largest cork producers.
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