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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Screw it or Pull it?
Gilbert Labour ©
Developed by the French in 1959, the screw cap [ROTE ] has been used in Australian winemaking for decades. Yalumba’s release of some Pewsey Vale Rieslings under ROTE from 1978 to 1983 was a marketing disaster for them due to public rejection of the technology.
ROTE closures are enjoying a renaissance in Australia and New Zealand, especially with delicate white wines but increasingly with some red wines. Can ROTE closures justifiably lay claim to being the heir apparent to corks and the answer to winemakers’ prayers? Let us briefly consider some pros & cons of both systems.
Cork is a natural product, which has been used as stoppers for centuries. By allowing micro diffusion of oxygen, it arguably encourages the wine to develop and mature in the bottle. It comes out with a ‘pop‘which is some consumers’ idea of a romantic interlude. On the negative side, it does not provide a perfect seal, can dry out and through leakage, can allow random oxidation and bottle variation. It deteriorates with variation in humidity and temperature, the latter particularly damaging to wine. Dry corks also crumble in the bottle neck thus necessitating horizontal storage. The supply and quality is variable and unreliable. It is prone to contamination by a range of bacteria e.g. the much recognized TCA but it can also impart a cork wood taste to the wine.
The cork industry has been telling us to expect and accept a 3 – 4% taint rate with TCA; however, in reality it is closer to 10%. When other faults such as oxidation and spoilage through other contaminants are considered, the rate jumps to an unacceptably high 20%.
Screw caps are neutral and taint free. The newer version with the rolled shoulders, internal inert polyvinyl membrane, and polyethylene pressure wadding can be engineered to trap various amounts of oxygen whilst providing a perfect seal. They allow slow maturing and development of the wine whilst retaining the inherent freshness and fruit definition as crafted by the winemakers. The major benefit is no spoilage from premature oxidation. This makes for ideal vertical storage of the bottles.
Under screw caps the wines magnify the characters of terroir, area and winemakers’ differences in styles as they are not as sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.
On the other hand, wines under ROTE will also magnify any faults, the main one being caused by the over use of sulphur at bottling. This results in reductive faults which are expressed by aromas of cabbage, burnt matches, rubber and rotten eggs, because in the absence of oxygen the yeast produces hydrogen sulphide. These undesirable flavours actually worsen with storage. However, winemakers are slowly coming to grips with new protocols regarding the correct and balanced use of sulphur. In these days of hyper sensitivity to chemicals, this will be beneficial to allergy sufferers.
Increased use of ROTE will also dictate consistently pristine winemaking as anything less than careful and meticulous techniques will be strongly reflected and magnified in the wine. A sound wine will better retain fruit definition, focus, and fragrance.
Judging by the increased numbers of wines, both reds and whites under ROTE at the recent National Wine Show, it would seem that even major companies are slowly but inevitably recognizing their merits and embracing this technology. Whilst most wineries have been experimenting with ROTE, Jeff Grosset acted on his conviction 2 years ago when he released his flagship red, Gaia under Rote.
He has since garnered support from such heavy weights as Henschke, [rumour has it that the legendary Hill of Grace will be released under ROTE], Beringer Blass, Moss Wood and Cullen from Western Australia, Haselgrove from McLaren Vale and Brokenwood from the Hunter Valley, to name but a few.
It is also inevitable that large Australian exporters such as Orland Wyndham with their Jacob Creek’s label, Lindemans, Cranswick, and Casella will adopt ROTE. According to the mega importer Tesco from the UK, there has been overwhelming acceptance of a range of wines sold under ROTE produced not only from the New World but also from Bordeaux [France], Italy, and Spain in their hypermarkets all across the UK. When the same wines were offered for sale both under ROTE and under cork, the former ran out of stock at the expense of the latter, especially with white wines.
It seems that we will soon be enjoying the romantic sound of twisting metal.
The 2003 National Wine Show, where over 2800 wines were judged over a two week period, seriously but pleasantly tested palate endurance. In the Premium classes only wines awarded Bronze, Silver and Gold medals at a Capital City show and Gold medal winners at Regional shows were eligible for entry.
The Len Evans Trophy for Top Wine of the Show went to the legendary 96 Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon. Rather surprising and refreshing to see a white wine awarded the ultimate accolade in this prestigious field of red heavy weights, however this is a superlative wine. It is power draped in grace.
On a broader scale, the Gold medalist Hunter Valley Semillons from Tyrrell’s, McWilliams, Keith Tulloch, De Bortoli, McGuigan and Petersons confirmed that area’s propensity for producing consistently excellent Semillons. Currently this is not reflected in market sales popularity and prices … a boon for us Semillon lovers with an eye for a bargain.
The much vaunted 2002 Riesling vintage once again lived up to its reputation as one of the finest in memory. However, the 2003 Riesling vintage, a much warmer growing season, should not be allowed to slip under the radar as the signs are that, those wines will more than match their older sibling in power, finesse, and longevity.
Not surprisingly the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from cooler climate areas prevailed, with the superb 2002 Wither Hills Pinot Noir [NZ] as a stand out.
The Merlot classes disappointed with only 2 Golds awarded. Merlot is yet to establish a defining style in Australia, both in the vineyard and in the winery and this was reflected in the results.
In the Cabernet Sauvignon Premium section, with the exception of the ever reliable Houghton’s Jack Mann 2001, the Brown Brothers Patricia 2001 and the Thomas Hardy 2001, all the other Gold medal winners came from the Coonawarra region.
On a different tangent, it was interesting to see a marked increase in the use of Stelvin – style closures both in red and white wines.
As expected, the majority of Rieslings were under such closures as were other white grape varieties such as Semillon, Chardonnays, Verdelhos and Viogniers. Remarkably, quite a few reds, including the winner of the Trophy for Best Dry Red Table Wine, the 2001 Wolf Blass Bilyara Vineyards Shiraz Viognier were also under screw caps.
It is good to see that the self-mythologising wine heavyweights have the fortitude, in this conservative market, to stand by their conviction that the future lies in Stelvin – style closures, especially with their premium range. The Wolf Blass Platinum Label is already under screw caps and rumour has it that the famous Hill of Grace will soon follow. How long before the Big G is seen in such company?
On the other hand, quite a few of the fragrant white wines under screw caps , rieslings in particular, showed reductive characters caused by an imbalance in the amount of sulphur and ullage at bottling. The winemakers will surely address and rectify this before the 2004 National Riesling Challenge to be held in Canberra in February 2004.
Of interest was the fact that quite a few of the awarded Shirazes had a certain proportion of Viognier blended in. Shiraz Viognier blends seem to be the trendy thing and Canberra’s own Tim Kirk has been at the cutting edge of that style with his Clonakilla flagship.
As expected, the White and Pink Sparkling Premium Class was dominated by wines sourced from cool climate areas whereas the Red Sparkling Premium class offered the classical warmth & opulence of South Australian fruit.
The sweet taste of success once again followed the Morris family who dominated the Sweet White Museum Class and the Muscat Museum Class with 6 Golds, as well as winning the Trophy for Best Fortified Wine. This whole category of wines attracted the admiration of the judges as reflected by comments such as “ Iconic, Great, Outstanding and Classic “. I think it means that they liked them.
In my opinion the 2003 National Wine Show was one of the better ones, offering in general a very high standard of wines across the board. The discrete and judicious use of timber was evident, with winemakers tending to use more French oak . Bring on 2004.
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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2003