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Great Buying Tip - Screwcap White Wines Age Slowly
Tuesday, 18th June, 2013  - David Farmer

I flew to Melbourne a few weeks back and to keep busy purchased the current wine magazines. In the 'James Halliday Wine Companion' magazine, June/July 2013 the article 'Cork Versus Screwcap' by Ralph Kyte Powell continues an old debate which examines the difference of these closures.

This article compares the taste of the same wine under screwcap and cork with the youngest vintage being 2006 and the oldest 1997. Thirty two different pairs were assessed which is enough to be statistically significant.

Most wineries and most consumers in Australia now prefer screwcaps (a popular brand is Stelvin) and this closure has rapidly gained market share over the last decade. Other producing countries and consumers are not so certain with many still preferring cork closures. As related on Glug several times one of the first house brands I had bottled back in 1978 was under Stelvin so I classify as an early adopter.

Over the years there has been many comparative tests comparing screwcaps with corks and while the technical types never had any doubts about which was better, masked tests like we are discussing were not so convincing. It was only a dozen or so years ago that Decanter UK wrote a scathing article saying screwcaps were overrated because the bottling process trapped compounds which make the wines 'reductive' and upon opening they emitted bad odours. Indeed there was some truth in this as the screwcap allows no passage of air in or out of the bottle.

The technical types solved that problem overnight and now the screwcap is proven to keep a wine fresher and more vibrant than a cork. For red wines it is thought some air movement in and out is beneficial and new screwcaps allow this. In general it is not going too far to say the impact has been revolutionary for the drinker.

A way to understand this is to realise that the wine you drink today is far better than a decade ago not because of vastly improved vineyard and winemaking practises but because of the seal on the bottle. A cork and screwcap wine are the same straight off the bottling line but then begin to deviate quickly.

Anyhow back to the results of the Wine Companion Magazine survey. For whites, and using the magazines own rating guide, the screwcaps were 'highly recommended' averaging 93 points while the corks rated 84, and this is below 'recommended' which is above 87. But, and this is the shocking part, three of the whites were 'corked' and disqualified. When I include these as zero points the average cork score drops to 71. Thus however I play with the numbers the taste is over 20% worse when buying a white wine sealed with cork.

This does not matter much in Australia as almost 100% of whites are sealed with screwcap but I will now tell you how to use this information.

Retailers do not like to sell popular white wines more than two years old. Because of this, companies often dump older stock cheaply, and yes we also do on Glug. Whether retailers are reacting to consumer concerns or their own misguided views I do not know. If you feel a back vintage means the flavours are impaired I ask you to reconsider. In most cases these whites show little change and do not deserve the price drop based on a view of quality deterioration. Indeed a few may be better than when they were younger.

Older whites under screwcap provide you with a huge buying opportunity. Taste a bottle and then make the decision.

To buy smart there is also another interesting aspect you need to know about. In times of oversupply white wines are held in stainless steel tanks, which are both refrigerated and under a cap of inert gas. This holds the wine in 'suspended animation' for years, the giant tank acting like a huge bottle. Thus by the time of bottling under screwcap the wine may already be two or three years old. Over the years I have purchased many back vintage bulk whites, packed and sold them into the wholesale trade at cheap prices. They are wonderful bargains.

The Wine Companion results show the screwcap advantage for reds is less pronounced being about half that shown for whites. Still why take the chance with a $50 bottle to find it is corked.

So let me sum up with these 'buy smart' points:

1. All wines under screwcap are fresher and better than cork closures. This trend increases with age.

2. Screwcap white wines up to five years old under normal storage conditions show almost no signs of deterioration.

3. Older white wines, say over 5 years, under screwcap will have mellowed and some you might enjoy more than when younger.

4. Two to three year old vintages of standard white wines are sold cheaply because retailers and possibly customers are suspicious of their condition.

5. Thus older vintages of cheaper styles with screwcaps may be brilliant bargains. Taste a bottle, then buy.

And lastly I find my opened whites when sealed up tight last longer in the fridge.

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