THE BLOG
04/14/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2014

A Pleasant Twist -- Screwtops for Fine Wines!

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all photos from Laetitia Wines

As a food-and-wine reviewer for some 50 years, I have drunk a lot of wine (a lot!)... and have been vociferous in my complaints about their corking. I once made a study of wine corks, most coming from Portuguese trees, and found that their quality has been deteriorating over the years. More and more good wine is being spoiled by inferior corks; it is 'corked' and becomes undrinkable. Time to stop and rethink this issue. I have become convinced that what's sitting at the top of a bottle's neck may have as much influence on its taste and smell as terroir, where it was born... and that is exactly what one of my favorite vineyards has tackled. The people at Laetitia told me that they had spent a decade debating the benefits of screw caps versus cork closures. We all know that screw cap wines in the past have had a reputation as being plonk, cheaper than bottles with corks. No longer. There is no question that this innovation has become an exciting recent trend in the marketplace. I first noticed it a few years ago when I began drinking fine wines from New Zealand and Australia and saw they were mainly screwtops. On a trip to Australia's wine country, I learned that over a decade ago winemakers from South Australia's Clare Valley all decided that they were tired of bad corks ruining their Rieslings and made the switch to screw tops. "Rieslings With A Twist" became their slogan. Today almost all Australian wines, both white and red, are sealed that way.

bottling machine
New Bottling Machine at Laetitia Vineyard.

At present. there are three ways to close a bottle: natural cork, synthetic cork, and screwtops. Natural cork has been used for centuries, but it has the danger of becoming 'corked,' which means that it has a musty smell and taste caused by a natural fungus in the cork. I estimate that about 10 percent of the wines I've tasted over the years have some degree of being corked. I won't even consider drinking a bottle which has a plastic cork... it offends me aesthetically and probably has been oxygenized and spoiled. The Laetitia people at their vineyard in Arroyo Grande spent a year's trial on a mobile bottling line applying screw tops for their fine whites and received praise from customers and sommeliers for the innovation. The accepted version is the Stelvin screw top, where a metal seal screws onto threads in the neck of the bottle. They decided to invest in their own machinery, a significant investment. "We have decided for now to put screw caps on our youngest white wines, those that require the least cellaring and which would be consumed soonest." The vineyard's President, Nadia Zilkha, then told me: "The new GAI machines seamlessly slotted into our bottling line. The bottling process is slightly slower now as there is an extra step when the lever lowers to secure the seal firmly, The quality is perfect, bottle variation minimal. We know that no oxygen can penetrate the bottle, freshness is sealed in, and what's more there is no chance of corkage. We're using Stelvin Lux, which has no visible threads on the outside. It not only works well but also preserves the look of a traditional cork capsule."

screwtop bottle of fine white
A bottle of white with a screwtop

I noted to her that I thought the closures are far more attractive, and that I was looking forward to enjoyng their fine reds also with a screwtop. And many sommeliers told me that the screw caps make service so much easier. No one misses the drama of pulling a cork from a bottle. I personally felt there is an extra bonus with screw caps: if you only want one or two glasses, screw cap bottles can go back in the fridge and stay fresh without having to fiddle with additional sealing devices. This is an incredible bonus and I take great comfort in knowing that the glass of wine that I have tomorrow and the following day will be pretty much the same as the one I have just had now.

So now I suggest that when a restaurant's sommelier discusses with you what wine you'll have with your meal, ask him to recommend a good wine with a screwtop. That would be a pleasant twist!

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