Let me start with a confession: I love cork. I bet you like it too - the rituals of uncorking, the faint pop as the wine breathes fresh air for the first time in years, and the discovery of what’s happened in the bottle over the years since it left the winery. But cork can be like one of those mates you’ve had around for a long time who every now and then steps over the boundary and lets you down. And I know I’m not alone on that front.
We’ve now had Best’s white wines under screwcap for 16 years and it’s been a great innovation that Australian wineries have whole-heartedly embraced. The reds followed suit, except for two which were produced for our 150th celebrations.
Over the last two decades a revolution has occurred in Australian wine, although you may be surprised to know that the trialling of screwcaps began nearly 50 years ago. Look at the wines filling your local bottle shop and you’ll see most Australian wines under screwcap. But hit the French section and almost everything is under cork.
One of the reasons we made the switch was because there were so many problems with cork and too much of our wine was being spoilt. The other reason for the switch has to do with sustainability. Put simply, the global wine industry has grown faster than supply from the Europe’s wonderful, ancient cork forests.
Screw caps are sometimes called Stelvins, after the registered brand name that pioneered the closure. In 1964, Yalumba’s Production Director, Peter Wall, commissioned a French company to develop a new wine closure, because even back then, they were having problems with white wines under cork. The Stelvin was first trialled by a Swiss winery, Hammel, as the ‘70s began and the first commercial wines were released in 1972.
From the early 1970s Yalumba and other Australian wineries – Hardys, McWilliams, Penfolds, Seppelt, Brown Bros, Tahbilk, and Best’s – sealed wines under Stelvin to test the new technology and see how the market would react. We used them on our cheaper whites, which came from our vineyard at Lake Boga (near Swan Hill). The response? Yeah, nah.
The wines sat on the shelves. Wine lovers did not trust or understand the gleaming metal closures and wanted their familiar corks back. It was an era when getting people to drink wine was challenge enough and we were all ahead of the times.
But if you’ve ever been to our cellar door and know what an incredible heritage is stored downstairs, you’ll know that Best’s, to this day, is all about delight and discovery.
In 1994 I found one of those wines – a Chenin Blanc – and it was quite something. Almost 20 years old, the fruit was still obvious, but not dominant, which was very unexpected. The palate was smooth and gentle, as I would have expected for a wine of that age. It was a delicious mix of young and old characters.
And that’s the genius of screwcaps. You get the best of both worlds in aging wines. It was compelling argument to try them again.
When some Clare Valley Riesling producers began to experiment and bottled some wines under screw cap in July 2000 we held our breath. The wines sold! Perhaps wine drinkers were ready.
But here’s the best laid plans moment. When we started to put our whites under screw caps in 2003, we ran out of caps and had to use cork for some of the bottles. We accidentally created an experiment – the sort scientists would call a control group.
The passage of time has revealed distinct differences between the closures when opened side-by-side. The fruit flavours are retained for a lot longer under screw cap and the palate is similar to the cork, but slightly less advanced.
In 2008, we went through our cellar and had to throw away more than half of our older whites sealed under cork because of random cork oxidation.
What do I mean? The cork lets a small amount of oxygen into a bottle. Because each cork is unique, with a slightly different density, the amount of air varies. An oxidised wine is like drinking white wine vinegar.
In the short term (less than 10 years), there isn’t much variation between bottles. But in older wines, the variation can be seen simply by differences in colour – the greater the oxidation the browner the wine. Flavours and aromas are also lost.
Nature gives you enough variation when you’re a winemaker. We didn’t need this. The amazing thing about screw cap is it’s rewriting the rules on how long you can keep a white wine.
Comparing notes with our wine industry colleagues, the amazing thing is how screw caps seems to keep wines fresher for longer, even as the aged characteristics begin to assert themselves. We’re just beginning to understand what’s possible if you want to cellar wines under this format.
By 2005, the Best’s reds were under screw cap. If I could, I’d be opening a bottle of our Jimmy Watson Trophy winning 2011 Bin 1 Shiraz every couple of months to see how things are progressing.
My current opinion is that our reds aren’t old enough to come to any definite conclusions about the impact of being sealed with a screwcap. They’re just too young, although the bottles I have opened and sampled are evolving nicely.
But because I love cork, and I am a wine romantic, when Best’s celebrated its 150th year, we decided to put The Concongella and Sparky’s Block Shiraz under cork with a wax seal as a nod to tradition. It’s not the end of cork and there are stories to tell and we wanted to see how these wines would evolve under the best cork we could buy (the issue in recent decades has been about the cleaning and grading of the cork in terms of reliability - a reminder that you get what you pay for).
And we were also confident in the quality of today’s cork and that it would be relatively problem-free.
As I flagged earlier, there is definitely a difference between wines under screw cap and cork. The first thing I’d say if you buy wines under screw cap is check for dings, because it could be like cork oxidisation, it could ruin the wine if you’re cellaring it.
And I should remind you that, as a famed wine writer once said, aging a bad wine doesn’t make it better, the one thing that is known especially when it comes to reds is that screw caps can magnify any faults.
What I’ve learnt about whites under screw caps is it slows down the aging process and retains fruit for longer. The secondary characteristics loved by those who age wines start to emerge, but the fruit remains, so you do get the best of both worlds.
As for reds, I’ve not seen a lot of really old wines under screw cap. We began our adventure in 2005. The wines I’ve seen haven’t yet found a sweet spot, so the jury is still out.
My instincts for the reds follow the whites. We’re about to discover a new longevity for red wines under screw cap. So I am backing them. See you in our cellar in 2040.