Nah, I'm not going to tell a bad joke.
But I am writing this post because I get lots of questions from people about closure...and I don't mean about how to separate yourself emotionally from a relationship.
I'm talking screwcaps, corks, synthetic corks, spigots -- you know, wine stuff. So when I was recently sent a few samples of the latest technology in boxed wine from Underdog Wine Merchants (that's my disclosure, but you'll see I'm not biased here even though they were complimentary), I thought I'd use the opportunity to talk about this hot topic.
Before we get started, I guess I should address why wine has to be sealed in the first place. It's not just because the FDA thinks it's a good idea. The reason: you've got to keep oxygen out or the stuff turns to vinegar. This is something that winemakers figured out early on, and since then they've been trying to protect wine with the tightest seal they can. Below are the four main ways they do it today.
Here's a nerdy fact: before cork came into fashion in the 1600s, the French used oil-soaked rags to stop up bottles. That said, cork is really the oldest bottle stopper that we still use. There's some evidence of cork being used by the founders of Western civilization too -- the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans often used cork to stop up hand-blown glass bottles or amphora.
About 60% of all wines today are sealed with cork. Where does it come from? A tree that has bark with a cool cell structure. The bark is squishy and light because it has a honeycomb shape whose little pockets are filled with gas. The elasticity allows it to take the shape of a bottle neck and its relative impermeability means the wine is safe from taking in too much air. Cork's distinct advantage over other closures: it does let a tiny bit of air into the wine so it's great for aging because the juice can take in oxygen and change its structure gradually, developing layers of flavor over time.
An ancillary benefit to cork is that it's a sustainable product -- it's recyclable, biodegradable, and renewable. Cork forests prevent desertification in areas where it's a risk and they give habitat to endangered species. 50% of cork comes from Portugal and the rest is mostly from Spain and North Africa.
The real downside of cork: it can be affected by a chemical compound and skunk your wine really easily. There are tons of studies done on this stuff and somewhere between 2% and 8% of all wines are affected by that nasty wet basement, musty smell associated with the TCA, which is the compound. That said, for aging wines, it's the only way to go and if you're into the environment, this is the best option for being environmentally friendly.
Fake Cork/Plastic Cork/Synthetic Cork/Pain in the Arse to Get Back in the Bottle Cork
The best feature of this closure is that you don't have to worry that your wine will have cork taint. The TCA compound only likes cork, not injection molded synthetic material, so the wine will be sound. Also, the synthetics create such a tight seal that they don't really let any oxygen in, so for wines that are meant to be consumed quickly and don't need aging this can keep them fresher.
To the negative --- the thing is, fake corks are a total pain in the arse to get out of the bottle and even more trouble to get back in. If you don't have a vacu-vin handy (which you should -- they're awesome), trying to shove one of these back in the bottle is like solving a Rubik's cube. I guess on the plus side, it's so frustrating that it will make you want to drink, hence you'll finish the bottle and avoid the issue of recorking, but it's annoying to have to make the attempt. I also think (and so do a lot of other wine dorks) that there is a chemical flavor associated with wines under synthetic cork. Look for it next time - it's kind of plastic-like. Ick.
The final issue with these -- not good for the environment. Although the manufacturers argue that cork is in short supply and that harvesting cork destroys the trees, it's kind of not true. There is enough cork to last for at least a century now and cork manufacturers are working on ways to keep up with demand. Cork trees aren't destroyed when the bark is harvested, so they can be re-harvested about every 9 years or so. As a last ding, plastic corks can't be recycled in a lot of places because of the kind of material used.
All in all, I'd say this is my least favorite closure and arguments for it are jinky at best.
Look, I know that for years only giant, insipid, watery jug wines used screw caps, but that was the 70s and 80s. In the last 10 years or so, screw caps have picked up steam and have lots of believers. I love screw caps, especially for white wines because they let NO air in at all, so the wine is usually very fresh-tasting and clean. Some argue that the seal is too tight and sometimes a sulfur-like chemical smell gets trapped in the bottle, but I haven't found that to be true. For a wine that needs no aging, who could ask for a more convenient solution than a screw cap? It makes the wine last 2 days longer than a cork because it doesn't let air in even after you recap it, and you don't need any gadget to get it open.
If you haven't been drinking wines with screw caps because you think they are of poor quality, give it another look. Super high quality producers use them. Producers in the Clare Valley of Australia make high quality Riesling and in the 2000 vintage they banded together to put everything under screw cap and never looked back. It sparked a revolution in Australian wines, and then their distant neighbors to the south followed with more passion for the idea -- now about 70% of New Zealand's wine is bottled under screw cap. Don't miss out on these because you are wary of the screw. Give it a go.
If these arguments don't fly with you, know that the French came up with the screw cap and if they are willing to use it, you should be too.
Boxed Wine -- a Closure and a Holder
So this really covers the vessel and the closure/dispenser, but I'm going to write about the whole thing because it ties in well.
Australia was the first to think up the idea of a bladder in a box in the 1960s and its been pretty successful at the low end of the wine spectrum. A great blog on the wine industry from a business perspective covers boxed wines really elegantly. Check out The Wine Economist's Post on Box for great info and insights.
To give you my take, when I think boxed wine, I think of the time I was working for a huge winery in CA and went to South Carolina to work with a sales rep. He told me that the new thing on college campuses was the "Tour de Franzia," where kids would remove a bladder of wine from a Franzia box, stick it in a CamelBak holder, attach the CamelBak straw and drink the entire bladder.
College students are nothing if not enterprising. I guess that's one way to make your dollar stretch, since a 5L box of Franzia costs about $10. But, ew.
That said, I do try to keep an open mind and I know, logically and from seminars and reading, that boxed wine bladders do keep it quite fresh for a long time (like 6 weeks long). For summer sipping or a bigger party, this would be ideal. But then the quality issue rears its ugly head. Let's face it -- it's usually cheap plonk that goes in those boxes and nothing you'd want to drink, let alone serve to friends.
With these ideas in mind, it was great that I was given an opportunity to try a boxed wine recently.
I have to give Underdog Wine Merchants credit for going the boxed route and for doing it in a cool way. They sent me an Octavin of Monthaven Chardonnay and one of Big House Red. What's an Octavin? An 8-sided box with a bladder in it and a spigot, of course! It fits in the door of the fridge, holds 3 liters of wine (4 bottles) and it looks cool. Other pluses -- it's only $20, which means each bottle is about $5 and it reduces waste by about 90%, according to them. It's easily recycled and you get about 20 glasses out of it, so theoretically these boxes are great for weeknight wine. What could be easier than putting the box in the fridge and turning a spigot after a hard day?
Great concept but although the quality of these wines is certainly better than Franzia or Carlo Rossi, and although I'm a huge proponent of being more sustainable, these wines just aren't high enough quality for me to buy them on a regular basis. The Monthaven was ok if served ice cold, but the Big House Red didn't cut it for me. I'm not sure if it lost its spunk in the box, but after a glass or two I left it to MC Ice to finish the rest in the coming weeks.
So arises the persistent issue with boxes -- consumers think boxed wines are cheap, so high quality producers won't "go there" and the lower middle range is not good enough for me to want 3 liters of it.
The bottom line -- boxed wines are getting better, but I'd rather pay extra to get something I really enjoy drinking. Screw cap is just as easy to open as a spigot.
So I hope this provided some closure on closures (couldn't resist, sorry). Let me know your thoughts, questions, comments, etc.
I used a few sources for this post:
Cork Facts (biased, but interesting and somewhat substantiated)
Wine Anorak (I love this UK-Based blog and Jamie Goode has done extensive work on closures)
The International Screwcap Initiative (formerly the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative)
The Wine Economist (really interesting stuff on the economics and practicality of the box)
June 9, 2010
Nah, I'm not going to tell a bad joke.