Screw-caps thread way into acceptance
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the WeekSonoma Vineyard 2005 Sonoma County Chardonnay; $12.
This screw-capped Chardonnay is done in a crisp, well-defined style, with sweet Meyer lemon, grapefruit, apricot and pear fruits nicely melded together. Acids are clean and balanced, the fruit solidly supported and the finish hits you with the sort of lip-smack that invites the next sip. (Distributed by Odom)
The widespread industry acceptance of the Stelvin wine-bottle closure — most commonly referred to as the screw-cap — has lit a fire under cork producers, who have been scrambling, with some success, to improve their products.
Meanwhile, the humble screw-cap, which traditionally occupied about the same low rung as the jug among wine lovers, has seen its image (and appearance) radically transformed — all in a remarkably brief time. The reasons that the screw-cap has been so warmly embraced are quite simple. Wineries were sick and tired of losing money (and worse yet, customers) due to tainted or "corked" wines. The bacterial taint, abbreviated as TCA, that infects a small but significant percentage of corks means that until a bottle of wine is opened, you cannot be certain that the wine inside will be sound.
That is the reason for the cork-sniffing ritual that bedevils so many people, who assume it is just another form of ancient snobbery. The screw-cap is widely perceived as the solution to the cork-taint problem.
The screw-cap has gained traction and popularity in both Australia and New Zealand among high-end and red-wine producers. American wineries are paying attention, because important alt-packaging trends often originate in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite some resistance from sommeliers and wine retailers ("What are we going to sniff?!?"), the screw-cap is clearly here to stay.
So I was a bit surprised to see a recent story in the wine magazine Decanter quoting research done by Wine Business Monthly that was headlined "America 'baffled' by screw-caps." Baffled? The same story noted that the number of wineries using screw-caps was up fivefold in the past three years.
I doubt that very many Americans are truly baffled by screw-caps. Though not everyone likes the way they look, their other advantages are obvious. Apart from taint-proofing the wines, they are easy to open, quick to reseal, and also may offer further protection from bottle variation caused by differing degrees of oxidation.
Screw-caps have come under fire for being ugly, but newer versions seem to me to be far more attractive. The "Stelvin+" cap, now turning up on more expensive wines, has a high-quality finish, a longer skirt, and the sort of bottle-top embossing traditionally reserved for the best of the best.
Another, more disturbing and somewhat technical rap against screw-caps is that they may cause wines to be "reductive" — a condition in which the wine receives too little rather than too much oxygen and may develop off aromas, particularly from sulfites.
These problems, too, are being addressed, by adjusting certain winemaking techniques before bottling, and also by improvements being made by the manufacturer, Alcan Packaging.
It's clear that for white wines, even those you expect to age for a while, the screw-cap has earned a permanent place in your wine cellar. When wineries such as Burgundy's Domaine Laroche begin using screw-caps on their Grand Cru Chablis, you know a tipping point has been reached.
So unless you are truly devoted to the ritual of cork-pulling and are inured to the disappointment of wines — sometimes very expensive wines — that taste musty and tired, you are advised to let go of any residual hesitation about the screw-cap's appearance. Twist a few and you will quickly adjust. In fact, your friends may think you are downright trendy.
Here are recommended screw-cap whites, organized by varietal. In next week's column, I'll tackle the thornier topic of putting reds under screw-cap.
Pewsey Vale 2006 "Individual Vineyard Selection" Riesling; $17. This is dry, yet retains some Germanic fruit sweetness.
Yalumba 2006 "Virgilius" Viognier; $40. Amazingly rich Australian wine, pricey but exceptional.
I have recommended many sauv blancs and semillon/sauv blanc blends from Australia and New Zealand in recent columns. Here are some additional releases from around the world.
Bonterra 2006 Lake/Mendocino; $14. Organically grown grapes yield a wine of piercing tartness, strong flavors of grapefruit, clean and palate-tuning.
Huntington 2006 Sonoma County; $14. Creamy and textural, mixing stone fruits, citrus and grapefruit with just a hint of residual sugar.
Rodney Strong 2006 "Charlotte's Home" Sonoma County; $14. Sharply defined fruit flavors; like a glass of limeade.
Evans & Tate 2006 Margaret River; $14. Lovely penetration, herbal complexity and a steely, stony core.
Ch. Bel Air 2006 Perponcher Reserve Bordeaux Blanc; $15. Crisp and tight, dry and compact. Hints of mint adorn the green fruits and fresh herbs.
Oberon 2005 Napa Valley; $15. Napa fruit tilts toward the semitropical, with hints of melon and papaya, pineapple and sweet grapefruit.
Ferrari-Carano 2006 Fumé Blanc Sonoma County; $15. A lifted, tropical style, that will appeal to some more than others.
Justin 2006 Paso Robles; $16. This is done in a softer style, best suited to those who don't cotton to the grape's aggressive grassy/herbal flavors.
Kim Crawford 2006 Marlborough; $18. Kim Crawford is widely known, reliable and flavorful, a New Zealand take on Sancerre.
Vidal 2006 Marlborough; $20. "Screwcap preserves wine's integrity" reads the skirt under the cap, sounding a bit like some sort of enological chastity belt. Incomparably fresh, in the New Zealand style, with passion fruit, peach and pea vine.
Domaine Chandon 2005 Carneros; $24. Green-gold, ripe and very toasty, this is an old-fashioned California chardonnay, but done well.
Jermann 2005 Venezia Giulia; $29. "A screwcap closure to preserve quality at its best" reads the label from this exceptional Italian producer. Immaculate, lightly herbal, subtle and fragrant flavors of white peach, melon and fresh apple.
Mountford Estate 2004 Waipara, New Zealand; $36. Open, bright aromas of fresh pineapple and grapefruit load the palate with thick, lush flavors, streaked with butterscotch, bourbon barrel and toasted almonds.
Finding the wine
Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages may sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. Show them this column, and if they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you from the local distributor.
Paul Gregutt's column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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