Stick a Cork in It?

The term “alternative wine closures” refers to anything that seals a bottle of wine other than traditional cork, which has been used for time immemorial. There are plenty of wines from nearly every region in the world that use all sorts of materials to keep the fermented juice safe and sound, and it is clear that alternatives to cork are becoming more common. An examination of the use of various closures in the Finger Lakes reveals that while few wineries have invested in quality alternatives to cork, a trend is developing that may result in more and more Finger Lakes bottles sealed with something other than the tried-and-true.

Why has cork always been the go-to material for closing a wine bottle? Cork is semi-permeable, meaning that it expands and seals tightly within the confines of an imperfect bottle neck, and yet allows for a very slow transfer of oxygen over time. This preserves a wine while encouraging its development in the bottle. Cork acts as a natural seal for a natural product that is at its best when it is allowed to “breathe” very slowly over the course of its bottle life. In the case of the most finely crafted wines, this process can last decades if not centuries.

As a natural product, however, cork is fraught with potential defects. The supply of cork is limited, as the slow-growing cork oak tree is cultivated in only a few areas around the Mediterranean (mostly Portugal and Spain). Corks can fail outright if not made well, and they can carry a taint called TCA that negatively affects the taste of wine. Over the years, most wineries have had to accept a small but steady failure rate for cork, which is frustrating to both winemakers and consumers alike.

Cheaper and ready-to-drink wines have long employed plastic closures (nicknamed “slugs” for their unappealing, sometimes yellowish appearance) or cork composites that are made of cork by-products that are chemically fused to appear somewhat like real cork (think plywood). Neither of these closures are designed to last. What’s more, they transfer oxygen too quickly, and are used widely in the Finger Lakes for sweet wines or for vinifera wines that are sold to be consumed within a year or two of purchase. Some composites are of higher quality than others.

Screw caps (officially known as Stelvin caps) provide a solid seal that bypasses the deficiencies found in both cork and its inferior substitutes. Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run, believes that screw caps have shown themselves to be an ideal seal. “The Australians have proven in aging trials that screw caps work,” Peter says. “You can find $100 red wines from Australia that use screw caps.”

In collaboration with Johannes Reinhardt from Anthony Road and David Whiting from Red Newt, Peter introduced Tierce Riesling in 2004. It has used a screw cap from its very first vintage. “We were willing to make a statement about the future,” recalls Peter, “especially since Tierce was being sold at a higher price to a target consumer group.”

Why hasn’t Fox Run employed screw caps for its own wines? “It’s a matter of cost,” he relates. “To retrofit a bottling line to use screw caps is expensive – the timing has to be right.”

Peter notes that many wineries in the Finger Lakes should be updating their lines over the next few years, and that screw-cap compatibility will be an option for most.

Steve Shaw of Shaw Vineyard understands the matter of cost and timing. He only recently began using screw caps as he updated his bottling procedures, despite a long-held interest in this type of closure. “The most important reason for us to use the screw cap closure on our newest release vintage of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio was to measure performance versus the regular failure rate of natural cork,” Steve says. “I think this will work out both in the short term and long term to express our style. So far, customers are not expressing any objections or concerns.”

Steve emphasizes that he is most interested in employing screw caps for his aromatic whites, not necessarily his reds, which he thinks are best aged with traditional cork.

That screw caps are ideal for whites is a position also held by Bernard Cannac of Heron Hill, which began using screw caps for many of its white wines last year. “Screw caps are perfect for wines we want to preserve as fresh as they were on bottling day. It preserves the freshness and the fruitiness of the wines. These wines do not require any bottle aging.”

Bernard has some reservation for using screw caps for Heron Hill’s reds and reserve whites, which he thinks need natural cork for proper aging. However, Bernard is intrigued by the availability of screw caps with semi-permeable construction, meaning that some oxygen transfer can take place. “Limiting cork taint is very important. So much work and passion goes into the making of a wine. It is always heartbreaking to see all these efforts ruined by a faulty closure.”

While screw caps remain the best-known alternative, Tom Higgins at Heart and Hands winery on Cayuga Lake employs a closure that is unique in many respects. The Vino Seal (known as Vino Lok in Europe) is a Czech-made closure that uses a glass stopper to seal the bottle. “My first encounter with Vino Seal was while working at Calera in California,” Tom says. “They conducted several blind trials using the Vino Seal closures versus cork over multiple vintages. The consensus on the Vino Seal closure amongst the staff was that there was much more vibrancy and freshness preserved in the bottles of both the whites and reds, compared to the ones protected with traditional cork. Those trials informed the selection of the closure that we would be seeking for our own program at Heart and Hands.”

Tom uses the Vino Seal for all Heart and Hands wines other than sparkling, and beyond some cost and supply issues (the bottles have to be precisely made to fit the closure), he views the aesthetics and convenience of using a glass stopper as being very desirable. He also notes that Vino Seals can technically be reused for other purposes. “Some of our customers have become very creative with reusing the bottles and closures. Probably the most common is storing and infusing their olive oil.”

Beyond Tierce, Shaw, Heron Hill, and Heart and Hands, few other wineries in the Finger Lakes use alternative closures for high-quality vinifera wine. As the economics of sourcing and bottle line reinvestment pan out, Peter Bell is convinced that the use of screw caps and other quality closures will not be a problem for consumers. “People are taking for granted that screw caps are fine,” he says, illustrating a point that in many ways transcends the importance of scientific trials. “The visuals are good.”

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Types of Wine Closures

1) Cork – Semi-permeable and time tested for the best wine development. Subject to a small but steady failure rate.
2) Synthetic –
Plastic, often not biodegradable, and allows too much oxygen over time.
3) Composite –
Many versions and types, mostly cheap, but some higher-quality versions available.
4) Screw Cap (Stelvin) –
Metal cap, varying permeability available. Seen by many as a great alternative to cork.
5) Vino Seal –
Glass stopper. Used mainly in Europe by a limited number of wineries. Trials proving positive.

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Screw Caps in the White House

Proving that screw caps are not a deterrent to quality wine
perception, the 2010 vintage of Tierce Dry Riesling was recently served at the White House in honor of President Obama’s Second Inauguration. Tierce, a collaboration between Fox Run’s Peter Bell, Anthony Road’s Johannes Reinhardt and Red Newt’s David Whiting, has been produced in limited quantities since 2004. See ww.tiercwine.com for further information on the wine’s debut at the White House.


by Jason Feulner