Tuesday, May 15, 2007

To Cork or Not to Cork

"The cork is here to stay," says George Taber, author of the forthcoming book To Cork or Not to Cork: The Billion-Dollar Battle for the Bottle. Over the last decade, the debate over the use of cork versus alternative enclosures, like the Stelvin screwcap, has been one of the fiercest in the wine world. As Taber says in a recent interview, "One Australian winemaker compared the issue to the wars of religion and said some feelings are so deep, he lost friends over it."

Proponents hail the screwcap, and other alternatives like glass, as revolutionary innovations that will defeat once and for all the scourge of cork taint (TCA) and other issues related to cork variability. Traditionalists, however, cling to the cork as an indispensable tradition and also argue that screwcaps damage the long-term aging potential of the finest wines. Proprietors of fabled estates like Romanee-Conti have said that if they knew of a better enclosure than cork, they would switch to it right away -- but none thus far have proven themselves superior for extended cellaring. Needless to say there is much invested on both sides.

Taber cites the usual reasons for the persistence of cork despite the strong in-roads Stelvin has made in Australia and New Zealand: the tradition, the romance, as well as laws mandating the use of cork in key wine producing countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal. ("Americans still like the romance of the cork, and even low priced wine like "Two-Buck-Chuck" uses a cork.")

Yet more significantly, Taber appears to base his conclusion on industry research that he believes has made progress in eliminating TCA, the compound responsible for the foul, wet cardboard stench found in the occasional bottle: "There now are completely new methods for processing corks." Taber believes that cork taint is more prevalent among smaller cork producers without quality control and that these new methods will produce taint-free enclosures. It will be intriguing to read the fruits of Taber's investigation into the subject, as to date, there hasn't been anything close to a guaranteed TCA-free source of cork.

Despite my avowed traditionalist bent, the cork for me is a relic -- one properly consigned to the dust bin of history alongside other former wine enclosures, like rags soaked in olive oil. There is simply too much risk of spoiling a $300 wine with a 50-cent piece of wood. I lose sleep at night -- seriously -- for fear that my lone bottle of 2001 Chateau Ausone, opened on its 30th or 40th birthday, will end up smelling like wet cardboard. For me, the romance of wine is not in any overly elaborate uncorking ceremony (aside from maybe popping Champagne) but rather in the liquid in the bottle that has been lovingly made and cellared for decades. The fascination with cork, to me, is a superficial romanticism. This is a moral imperative -- wine must be saved from the cork.

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