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Featured Publication
July-August 2003

Screwed For Good
The Case for Screw Caps on Red Wine
by Tyson Stelzer

Screwed for Good
published in 2003 by Wine Press
ISBN 0 9580628 11

Reviewed by Sue Courtney, 27 July 2003

In the New Zealand and Australian wineshops and in UK supermarket chains like Tesco's, screwcap closures on wine bottles are becoming rather common place. Australia's 'Riesling with a Twist' campaign in 2000 thrust the screwcap closure into the faces of the sons and daughters of the people who scorned the closure as cheap and nasty some twenty years before. The campaign was limited to Riesling as that was the only bottle shape available. New Zealand producers quickly latched on to the idea and with the drive of the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative, launched in 2001, they didn't stop at Riesling. They had their bottle suppliers design bottles to suit Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even reds - the traditional 'Burgundy' and 'Bordeaux' shapes.

Tesco has been the driving force in the UK and with its 'Unwind' campaign has been insisting on screwcapped closed wines from its major suppliers. So as well as wines from Australia and New Zealand, they've convinced producers in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Israel, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and even the USA to switch to the closure. And sales are soaring.

But while screwcaps are being readily accepted for early drinking white wine styles, what about reds that require long-term ageing?

Tyson Stelzer, a wine lover and scientist from Queensland, Australia and author of Cellaring Wine - D-I-Y Solutions, decided to find out. The result is his excellent report 'Screwed for Good? The case for screw caps on red wines', now published in book form. His conclusion, Red wines mature better when sealed with screwcaps than with corks.

Tyson is in the right place to do the research, after all Australia is where screwcaps were welcomed by several wine companies in the 1970's and 1980's - we even used them for a while in New Zealand - see my article The History and Revival of Screwcaps. However, opposition from the consumer gave an early burial to the idea and by the early 1980's the screwcap wine closure had all but disappeared.

Tyson was determined to find out what had happened to the old bottles. Were there any still around lurking in old dark cellars? So he contacted people who were involved with the closure the first time round. People like Australian wine industry expert Bryce Rankin, author of 'Making Good Wine' and James Irvine of Irvine's Wines whose experience with screwcap wines dates back to the early to mid-seventies when working at Krondorf Wines. Irvine was so confident that red wines would age under screwcap that when the capping machines were pulled out from under the dust covers in1995, he bottled several dozen of his lauded Irvine's Grand Merlot, a $100-plus wine, in screwcaps for his own curiosity and has done so ever since.

One of the key people Tyson tracked down was Peter Wall the director of Yalumba who played a critical role in the driving the development of the Stelvin-branded screwcap in Australia. Wall's first taste of red wine from screwcap was in France in 1970 where he tasted Bordeaux reds that were two or three years old. In the last 33-years he's tasted many reds from screwcap, mostly old Yalumba wines that pop up from time to time. The point he makes is that reds under Stelvin have been studied for over thirty years. "Every so often a bottle surfaces and surprises the lucky finder with the quality of the wine", he says.

When Tyson talks to Keith Mugford of Moss Wood Wines from the Margaret River region he is reminded of the saying. There are no great old wines, just great old bottles.. "This is significant in considering the consistency of screwcapped wines. I'm pretty confident that red wines will age well", says Mugford.

Does red wine need oxygen to come through the cork to allow the wines to breathe and develop? Tyson talks to people who prove this is a myth, people like Professor Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, Dean of the Institute of the University of Bordeaux.

When Dr Bryce Rankin emphatically says "the prevailing belief that cork is necessary for proper maturation of wine is not supported by fact", the argument then becomes "How long will it take for red wines in screwcap to mature".

The development of wine under screwcap is a concern for Peter Gago of Penfolds Wines. Penfolds bottled the Bin 389 from the 1996 vintage in screwcap for the UK market. "The wine has developed slower", he said after tasting one of the screw-capped wines. "The screwcapped version had aged in a similar way to a wine in a really cold cellar". Other winemakers voice their concern in the Chapter Peter Pan Wines.

Gago, who is several years into an ageing trial of Penfolds 'Grange' under screwcap, voices another concern. "We don't know what screwcaps will do after many decades", he says. He does, however, know what corks will do after many decades and while some hold the wine in perfect condition others do not. This is one of the reasons that Penfolds Wines holds their annual re-corking clinics - to check the quality of the cork seal and to top up wines that have leaked or ullaged. If Penfolds do decide to change to screwcaps when their trial is complete, perhaps they could introduce a red wine re-capping clinic. At least the wines they look at won't have cork taint.

The chapter, 'Corks - are they stuffed?' highlights the inconsistencies that do arise from the cork. There's TCA taint, random oxidation, wood and sappy effects that get introduced to the wines, fruit-loss and other non-wine aromas and flavours. Those winemakers who have run cork trials in their wine labs by soaking 50 to 100 corks for 24 hours, each in a separate glass of water, have seen the colour and flavour change from glass to glass in an inconsistent manner. Tyson talks to winemakers who have carried out these trials - they need no further convincing to make the switch to screwcap.

It just has to be remembered that screwcaps don't remove all faults. The wine has to be good wine before it goes in the bottle. The wine must be bottled when it is in a balanced and stable manner. 'Handle with Care' the chapter on winemaking issues, looks in more details at some of the winemaker feedback on this issue.

Tyson Stelzer has to be congratulated for doing the research and answering the questions that many of us want to know about screwcaps. He's done a grand job of compiling the facts and shattering the myths in this easy-to-read report that is presented in a user-friendly accessible way.

There will always be those that scoff at screwcaps for red wines and the debate will long go on. But as Stephen Henschke of his namesake winery says "I'm sure in ten years time we'll all look back and say "What a mob of twits we were using corks to seal our wines!" while writer Chris Shanahan says "ten years from now as we twists the top off yet another untainted, unoxidised wine, we'll wonder why there was any debate at all".

Screwcaps are here to stay and the proof will be in the tasting.

Screwed for Good is a glossy-covers A4-sized publication with 96-pages. There are 15 short chapters and comprehensive references (including wineoftheweek.com) and acknowledgements (including consumer screwcap advocate and wineoftheweek.com columnist, Murray Almond).

Screwed for Good can be purchased online from Vinote where the advertised price is $27.95. My flier said there were discounts for quantity purchases. If you're in Australia you can purchase the book from Winestar where the price is $AUD11.95, plus postage and packaging.

Find out more about the book and where to buy internationally from Tyson's website . While you're there you can download a chapter from the book to try before you buy.

© Sue Courtney
27 July 2003


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