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Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma

For Christmas dinner this year, we cooked a standing rib roast with Bearnaise sauce, Yorkshire pudding, broccoli, and rice.  The dinner was wonderful, capped off by an absolutely delicious mature Burgundy: the 1985 Corton Clos du Roi from Prince de Merode.  We chose the wine because we thought it would be good, but also because we had two bottles of it and there were six of us at the table.  One bottle just didn't seem like it would be enough.

When I opened the bottles, it was clear that the two were different.  One was flawless: deeply rich with dark red fruit, earth and spice, fully mature tannins and an endless finish.  The other seemed lighter, a little muted, with drier fruit and a piney note to it that was absent from the first bottle.  We drank the better bottle first (of course!) and I hoped that the second bottle would improve with a little time open.  It never really did, though we drank it too, as a lesser version of that wine was still most definitely worth drinking.

Meghan speculated that the second bottle was slightly corked, and I can see how it might have been.  There was a slightly musty character to the wine that we all might have attributed to the bottle's age had we not had the better example to compare it to.  Our experience reinforced my opinion that a very significant percentage of older wines are somehow compromised by their corks. 

We struggle here at Tablas Creek with whether to bottle a wine in cork or screwcap.  We've largely come down on the side that more tannic, more ageable wines do better under cork, as it allows the wines to better take on more of the secondary characteristics that come with age.  The wines that we want to keep as much like they were when they were bottled we bottle under screwcap.  It makes sense to us.

Still, I have this niggling suspicion that when you look over the very long term (say 20 years or more) a much higher percentage of wines are impacted negatively by their cork than the 3%-5% we typically attribute to TCA infection.  Whether the seal isn't quite perfect to start with, or the cork gradually breaks down or dries out over time, or whether there is a tiny level of TCA infection at the beginning that only becomes noticeable over decades as the more primary flavors of fruit and tannin mellow is difficult to say.  It's likely a combination of all three.  Still, it has become a moment for celebration when we open a very old wine which isn't compromised to at least a slight degree by its cork.  Wouldn't it be a reasonable conclusion to think that powerful, ageworthy wines under cork and under screwcap might have aging curves that looks something like the chart below?


If my assumptions are right, there is a period where the more rapid evolution allowed by the cork is superior to the slower evolution under screwcap.  And, there is a period where the faster evolution has taken its toll on the wine under cork and it has fallen off while the slower evolution under screwcap has maintained the wine at or nearer its peak.

Even if this is true, there are some other very important questions to consider before a winery like us would choose to move more of its production of ageworthy wines to screwcap.  First, what is the scale of time of the curve?  Do the curves meet after five years? Ten? Twenty?  Fifty?  Or does it vary by wine?  And to what extent is the flavor of a wine in the cork-is-better period augmented by the taste of the cork itself?  In other words, are the peaks under cork and under screwcap, which we can reasonably assume happen at different times, equal in amplitude?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  And, given the relatively small number of people who age wine for decades or longer, maybe it's largely academic (I think it's unlikely that the curves meet before 10 years).  But my personal experience when I've been lucky enough to drink much older wines suggests that once you get twenty or more years out, your chances of having a pristine wine are comparatively slim.

As happens, I got some corroboration for this theory at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays earlier in December.  It was, as always, a terrific event, and I was lucky enough to be paired with three other top-notch wineries: Bonny Doon, Merry Edwards and Rombauer.  At the event, each winery gives a seminar to the group, and I led off with the first seminar of the session.  During my seminar (on the many glories of Roussanne) I received a question on why we typically bottle Roussanne-based wines under cork but most of our other whites under screwcap.  I explained how we feel it is important that the evolution of Roussanne be allowed to continue under cork, but that we want to arrest or slow the development of our other, more oxidation-prone, Rhone whites. 

Randall Grahm presented the next seminar later that afternoon.  Bonny Doon, of course, has been one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of screwcap closures, and Randall was asked by a member of the audience to comment on my assertion that corks could help the evolution of certain wines.  In a very gracious answer, he said that it may well be (and probably was) true that many wines, in young- to middle-age, might benefit from cork, but that his opinion was that for long aging, every wine would be better off under screwcap because it was likely to be better protected from oxidation and subsequent decline.

I wasn't in the audience at the time to be asked (I was listening to the seminar from the balcony above while keeping our three-year-old entertained) but I would agree with Randall.  The key question, to me, is trying to choose the best option for the time of life when the majority of our wines will be consumed.  As there are so many variables at play, we experiment a lot.  I'm fascinated to see what the trials where we've bottled the same wines in cork and screwcap, which began in 2002, taste like in another five, ten, and twenty years. 

Yes, screwcaps provide a TCA-free refuge for wines for early drinking.  But might they also offer greater peace of mind for wines intended for very long aging?