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The Life of Wine

While I was trying to come up with a suitable subject for the column this month, I turned to a chum and asked whether there were any questions he’d ever wanted to ask about wine, but had always been too lazy to Google. He came back, quick-as-a-flash, with: “Yeah, corks. What are they about?”

An excellent topic for discussion, and far better than the pros and cons of the champagne enema, a subject I had been mulling in my head. There are generally two camps in the cork debate – one that says if you aren’t going to use a cork, why not do away with the bottle too and just bloody well serve the stuff from Tetra Pac? The other says corks are far too risky, and believes it takes less effort to twist the top off a bottle than have to deal with something as complicated as a corkscrew.

Although on the surface the argument appears harmless enough, in recent years the debate has escalated to the point where gangs of New Zealand sauvignon blanc producers and clans of Bordeaux traditionalists have been asked to leave their corkscrews with security and only drink out of plastic cups at wine tastings.

Natural cork has been the choice of wine bottle closure for more than two centuries and is currently used to stop wine dribbling out of around 16 billion bottles every year. Most of the stuff is harvested from the cork forests of Spain and Portugal. Because the trees can be harvested for their bark over and over again the material is arguably far more environmentally genial than plastic alternatives or metal screw tops – I’m going to ignore plastic cork-shaped substitutes because nobody likes those, they are rubbish, and trying to get the buggers out of the bottle can end in a hernia.

Cork usually comes as a one-piece punched out of the tree bark, or as ‘technical’ cork consisting of compacted cork granules. Both types have the ability to expand and contract, something that is extremely difficult to achieve with other materials. This attribute allows wine to receive the minute amounts of oxygen it needs to develop with age. The flexibility of cork also means it comes out of, and goes back into, the bottle easily. Unlike that bastard plastic stuff I mentioned earlier.

And cork forests are great. They provide employment for the local community, prevent the area turning into yet another desert, and are the last remaining habitat for the attractively pointy-eared, and extremely rare, Iberian lynx.

But cork is not without its problems – the biggest of which is its association with cork taint, something that around five percent of all bottles suffer from. Although TCA (the contaminant that causes a wine to become ‘corked’) can come from anywhere in the winery, and has even been found to affect bottles sealed with a screw cap, cork taint is probably most commonly associated with the cork for a good reason.

Cork producers go to extreme lengths to make sure their stoppers are decontaminated, but only an astonishingly tiny amount of TCA has to get through for a bottle of wine to be spoiled.

Screw caps are currently the top contender for cork’s crown. I have absolutely no problem with the aesthetics of the screw cap, especially when it is likely to mean the wine I am about to drink will not taste of cardboard. Screw caps are fantastic for ensuring that young wines are kept fruity and vibrant. However, what does worry me is that, especially in Australia and New Zealand, many winemakers are advocating the device for all wines.

Nobody really knows how screw caps will behave as a closure for wine that is only drinkable after decades of sitting quietly in a bottle. Putting First Growth Bordeaux, which has always done pretty well under cork, into a bottle with a more modern closure now could turn out to be a rather embarrassing, and costly, disaster in the future.

There are all manner of clever closures coming onto the market as inventors continue their search for the holy grail of wine bottle stoppers, and scientists seem to be perpetually on the verge of a commercially viable cure for TCA, which is all good news.

But surely one of the most exciting aspects of wine is that it is often so unpredictable. Producing this glorious drink remains a delicate labour of love constantly fraught with the possibility of disaster. Whole vintages can be ruined by something as unforeseen as a dodgy disease in the vineyard, a spot of bad weather, or a cock-up during fermentation.

So sod it, for the time being I’ll take the risk, pop a good old-fashioned cork out of my bottle and offer up a toast to the Iberian lynx.