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Corks and Screwcaps Revisited: Results from a Blind Tasting

About two years ago, I wrote a post called “Corks and Screwcaps: Not an open and shut case” that got a nice nod from Eric Asimov in the New York Times and brought a slew of new readers to the Tablas Creek blog.  In it, I made a case that the polemics on either side of the screwcap/cork debate were both a little silly, and that certain wines performed best under one closure and other wines better under the other.  This assertion was based on the trials that we have been doing at Tablas Creek since the 2002 vintage, bottling the same wine in cork and screwcap and watching how they evolve over time.

Late last year, I speculated that even the above conclusions were too simplistic in the blog post Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma.  I speculated that while some wines would be better from the beginning in screwcap, even some of the wines that would benefit in the short or medium term from the cork finish might over the very long term benefit from the freshness that the screwcap provides.

Two weekends ago, we opened up the experience of tasting the same wines in cork and screwcap to the public for the first time.  For an audience of about 60 attendees (most of them Tablas Creek wine club members) we tasted twelve wines in two flights.  The first flight consisted of two white wines and one rosé, cork and screwcap versions of each.  The second flight consisted of three red wines, again cork and screwcap versions of each.  All were the same vintage except for the Bergeron, where we tasted the 2004 (bottled under screwcap) and the 2005 (bottled under cork).

Overall, the results tended to validate the choices that we’d made, as the whites and rosé tasted brighter and fresher under screwcap (and were generally preferred by the group) while the reds tended to taste softer and lusher under cork (and were generally, though not universally, preferred by the group).  I made sure I wasn’t involved in pouring the wines so I could approach the tasting truly blind.  Some conclusions later; first, my tasting notes:

White/Rosé Flight

  • 2003 Vermentino A: nose quite aromatic, slightly skunky, a little gunpowdery, very classic Vermentino; in the mouth mineral, with good length and a slight plasticky note on the finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2003 Vermentino B: a little more subdued and oxidized on the nose, tastes a little older and sweeter.  Longer on the finish (turned out to be cork)
  • Bergeron A: nose of old honey and mint, but also a note of oxidation.  Lemony in the mouth but fresher than the nose.  Relatively short finish. (turned out to be 2005, in cork)
  • Bergeron B: bright, spicy, herby nose.  Young and fresh in the mouth, a bit less sharp acids.  A touch richer and much more pure on the long finish (turned out to be 2004, in screwcap)
  • 2003 Rosé A: fairly muted and alcoholic on the nose; mouth much better, with nice sweetness and length, and lots of cherry; nice long finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2003 Rosé B: brighter strawberry and mineral nose; similar in mouth to “A”; also a very long finish with lots of cherry/berry (turned out to be screwcap)

Red Flight

  • 2002 Las Tablas Estates “Glenrose Vineyard” A: bright nose, a little vinegary, and a little plasticky.  Mouth moderate depth, some spice, a little short on finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2002 Las Tablas Estates “Glenrose Vineyard” B: a little darker and more olivey on nose; richer and woodsier on the palate than “A”; nice balance and longer finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas A: bright, spicy nose with a touch of alcohol showing; mouth nice balance, spicy and vibrant, mid-length finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas B: sweeter and more caramelly nose showing more darker tones than “A”; sweeter and more mature in the mouth, but feels more substantial too; longer finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas A: bright and clean nose, showing high-toned red fruit (lots of strawberry); in mouth bright but somehow less substantial than “B” (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas B: first sample corked (a dead giveaway); second sample bigger and darker than “A”, more tannic, longer finish (turned out to be cork)

I correctly identified in all six pairings which wine was under which closure, which I wasn't sure I would.  This rebuts the argument I hear more and more, that closures are essentially irrelevant except as to which has the lowest failure rate.  The closure does impact the taste of the wine even if it is not flawed.  I remember a tasting in the cellar we did a few years ago where Cris Cherry of Villa Creek Cellars correctly identified all the cork-finished wines, commenting that he could taste the cork.  I was impressed but not convinced at the time.  I am now.

Looking back through the notes, I see a few threads that are consistent.  The cork, on the positive side, seems to add darker tones to the wine, give a sense of sweetness, and lengthen the finish.  On the negative side, the whites and Rosé under cork all betrayed a hint of oxidation.  Granted, none of these were meant to aged long-term, but there was a heaviness in the cork version that there was not in the screwcap.  The screwcap, on the positive side, maintained a brightness and freshness in everything.  On the negative, it tended to shorten the finish and make (keep?) a wine less complex, and a few of the wines under screwcap betrayed a plastic character that I didn’t find appealing. 

Where does this leave us?  I’m not sure.  Here are some things I think I do know:

  • For the aromatic whites and the Rosé, I think it’s a no-brainer to bottle in screwcap.  
  • I know that we’ll be bottling the Bergeron in screwcap from now on (we’ve gone back and forth). 
  • I have some doubts about our decision to bottle the Cotes de Tablas primarily in screwcap starting with the 2007 vintage (but not enough doubts to change my mind about what we decided).  While the 2006 Cotes de Tablas tasted darker and deeper under cork, the 2005 screwcap version was already showing a brightness and spiciness that the cork version seemed to have lost.
  • I feel increasingly confident that we are making the right decision maintaining the Syrah- and Mourvedre-based reds under cork.  

But what about Roussanne?   The 2004 Bergeron under screwcap was among the most universally preferred wines, tasting much fresher than the 2005 Bergeron under cork (and we’ve generally thought of 2005 as the more ageable and substantial of the two vintages overall).  What would we see with the riper, denser Roussannes that we let reach full maturity?  I’d like to bottle a few cases of our 2009 Roussanne (or Esprit Blanc) in screwcap to see.

Overall, the experience was fascinating, and fun to be able to open up the experience to the public.  We’ll do it again.