Imagine it’s World War Two and, despite the hostile environment, there’s a surprisingly level of transparency in the progress being achieved by the parachute industry. The Ministry of War issues a press statement announcing that, as a result of new technology developed by the silk weavers, the failure rate of parachutes has been brought down to around 5%. If you were a pilot, or the spouse or parent of a pilot, wouldn’t you be delighted with this disclosure?
This is pretty much the kind of news we get from the wine cork industry. Rates of taint have dropped from levels which used to hover around the 15% mark. Depending on who is trumpeting the latest triumph, they could be down to under 5%. In a recent piece in the Wine Spectator, James Laube has now recorded a disconcertingly upward trend, reversing the apparent progress of several years. Using the statistics assembled from the California wine tastings at the Wine Spectator’s offices (it’s a meaningful sample, with over 4000 wines tasted annually), he noted that taint levels had dropped from 9.5% in 2007 down to 3.67% in 2012 before rising again to 4.26% in 2013.
Now Laube is clearly not an apologist for the cork industry. He says all the right things about how corks ruin countless tasting experiences every year. Unusually (given America’s ante-diluvian attitude to screw-caps) he comments positively on the increasing number of bottles in the US market now closed with ‘twist-offs.’ He is not a spokesman from the Ministry of War, rejoicing in the 95% safety levels of the parachutes being issued to the airmen.
I can’t believe it is taking so long to consign corks – as wine closures – to the scrapheap of history, together with stone-age implements, Roman slave galleys and human sacrifices. Useful though they were as the most effective means of sealing wine bottles in the three centuries following the discovery of the benefits of the slow ageing of wine, corks have been superseded by newer and more effective closures. Chief among these is the screw-cap – which, though it still offends people who think of it as the primary designator of cheap wine, offers the perfect taint-free seal. It also has its critics who hold that its hermetic nature leads to pongy, sulphury notes developing in the bottle.
Back to parachutes: when they fail because they have been made with poor fabric, the fault is in the manufacture. When the airman crashes to earth because one was incorrectly folded, you blame whoever packed it. When bottles are sealed with ‘twist-offs’ and the wines emerge smelly or reduced, the fault does not lie with the closure but reflects the incompetence of the producer.
For those who find screw-caps aesthetically unacceptable, the one type of cork closure which really does seem to have a very low incidence of taint is a particular brand of agglomerated cork made by Diam (and branded accordingly). All other agglomerates – in my experience – are significantly worse than regular corks. It seems that the cheap cork bits which are crushed and combined to produce the average particle cork carry a much higher risk of introducing taint to the wine.
I taste an average of 100 wines blind every week, and the team in my tasting room will confirm I identify (unsighted) probably half the wines closed with non-Diam agglomerates because the taste has been contaminated by the closure. Winemakers who use them should be boycotted: they have chosen to use a no-name-brand component to achieve a small saving at the expense of the entire package. Putting them into bottles is the vinous equivalent of issuing pilots with defectice parachutes. Those who market them and those who use them should be hanged along public highways and left for the crows to feed off.