Are anti-cork sentiments softening in New Zealand and Australia?

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One thing I’m noticing in Australia and New Zealand of late: the growing number of producers using cork for high-end bottlings.

This would have been unthinkable five years ago, such was the strength of the reaction against cork, with its problems of variability and taint. Since 2000 in Australia and 2001 in New Zealand, there has been a massive swing towards screwcaps unparalleled in the rest of the world. Estimates are that screwcap use in New Zealand was above 95% at one point, and Australia wasn’t far behind.

The screwcap, wth the pretty much hermetic tin-saran liner (allowing very little oxygen transmission at all), is a fine closure that has served some wine styles well. Lots of my favourite wines are screwcapped.

But some wines taste better under cork, where the cork is sound. Pinot Noir, Bordeaux-style reds, Syrah and Chardonnay all seem to show better younger when they are cork sealed, and I like the way they age under cork, too. [This is my opinion, and others may disagree: all I will say is that wines taste different when aged under closures with different levels of oxygen transmission, and the differences are evident quite soon.]

For a long time, the whole screwcap/cork debate was almost religious in its fervour in Australia and New Zealand. From listening to the discussion over here I’m in NZ now), you’d think that any wine sealed with cork was ruined and that anyone choosing to use cork was an idiot. For quite a while prior to the mass switch to screw caps, it seems cork taint rates here were terrible, and that cork was extremely variable. It’s understandable why people would be so cross when so many of their wines were ruined.

But things have changed. Now, the quality control in cork production is much better. Screwcaps were arguably the best thing to happen to the cork industry: they caused them to up their game. Cork quality is now a lot better, I think, and this seems to be backed up by evidence from large competitions.

I judge in the International Wine Challenge every year, and we keep a check of the faults. For the last two judging tranches I’ve been in charge of the faults table, and I can honestly say that cork taint still exists. We get through a lot of wines – 15 000 or so entries, and two rounds, so more than 20 000 bottles are entered. We have experienced panel chairs and judging teams so I don’t think many corked bottles are missed. The taint rate is, however, reassuringly low: it’s below 3% of cork-sealed bottles these days, with a big sample size. This includes all commercial levels, with lots of affordable wines where the corks will be cheap. Buy more expensive cork and the rate will likely be lower.

DIAM has been an interesting closure for a while now. It’s a microagglomerate cork where the cork granules have been cleaned by critical point carbon dioxide so that there’s no TCA present. It looks good, too, with a cork-like grain. I’ve never had a problem with a wine sealed by DIAM.

And now there are guaranteed TCA-free natural corks: Amorim have introduced the NDtech, where each cork is checked for TCA by a rapid GC-MS process. I found the first NDtech in a bottle I recently opened. It’s an expensive option, but for fine wines it’s worth the extra.

And let’s not forget: top Burgundy and Bordeaux wines are pretty much 100% cork-sealed, and there isn’t a big call for alternative closures in these regions, which are the most famous fine wine regions in the world. Demand for these wines keeps growing. If cork were a total disaster, and some are claiming, then people would be up in arms. They aren’t.

So it’s interesting to see a resurgence of cork for high-end bottlings over here. The other great advantage cork has is that it enables some pretty smart packaging choices, such as wax dipping. This may sound shallow, but when you are charging lots for your wine, then it makes a big difference if it looks special.

[Conflict of interest: None. I don’t earn money from any closure company.]

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