I get several mails asking wine questions that I answer individually to the best of my ability but a recent mail asking me where the real wine with cork was available in a particular city attracted my attention and I realized there might be thousands of new wine drinkers who believe in the myth that the ‘real’ wine must be sealed with a cork and it needs clarification.
Why do we need a cork, screw-cap or any other type of closure to seal the bottle, in the first place? The answer is simple- but we need to understand the reason. Every bottle or can needs a closure. In case of wine, the selection becomes critical. Wine is not like whisky, vodka, rum or gin where any closure (ddhakkan) is fine. It is a product in transition. Prolonged touch with oxygen results in a permanent chemical change into vinegar. At the same time, an extremely small contact with air helps maturation.
Cork with the millions of extremely small pores provides this contact and yet prevents a mass leakage of oxygen, an enemy of wine, from entering the bottle. That’s how the fine wines needing maturing get better and complex in the bottle even when they have been kept in the bottle.
But there has been a problem. Some corks (2-7% generally) show the propensity to react chemically, giving a compound called TCA and this results in corking of the wine ( a musty smell and off-taste). To avoid this problem, winemakers have started using alternative closures, screw-caps being the more popular substitutes. There are synthetic corks, chemically treated corks, cork with materials of different compositions, glass and of course, screw caps. There is also now wine in a bag-in-the-box the closures/taps of which have become so sophisticated that they have gained increasing acceptance in Nordic countries, though in India they are still identified with cheap wine.
On the other hand, in Australia and New Zealand, the screw-cap has become a de-facto standard apart from the very expensive and age-worthy red wine. Their wines areas real as, say, in Italy or France where the acceptance of screw-caps has been slower. In fact in an earlier article on delWine I had written how the well known Australian winemaker Vanya Cullen rues her past vintage wines getting spoilt because of cork. Despite the corking problem bothering he industry for decades, both Australia and New Zealand used corks extensively till a couple of decades back.
All wines made from fruit are ‘real’ though I don’t mind sharing that I believe grape wines are ‘more real’. There is a fundamental difference-the tannins in the grape and higher content of acid that makes it possible to not only age the wine (augmented by the possibility of wine coming in touch with oak and acquiring some more tannins and complexity) but also change flavours due to the formation of several esters as it evolves in the bottle.
Due to the tainting of wine due to cork and thus giving it a musty smell, more and more producers globally are changing to other closures, especially screw-caps and even glass. Acceptance of cork replacement has been slow but sure. In the rather sophisticated UK market screw-cap was not accepted till a decade ago and many new converts in Australia and New Zealand were forced to use corks for export to UK and many other countries including India. Today, screw caps are accepted standards for a majority of wines there.
The situation has changed very fast in India as well, where Sula was perhaps the first winery that started bottling their regular whites in screw-capped bottles. Un-noticed by most people, today they bottle their Dindori Reserve red wine also in the same way. Grover also followed suit and now many other producers have shifted to these closures too.
One reason why people shifted to screw-caps from cork was also because the white wine remains very fresh. Since most wines we drink- in India anyway, are young wines (meaning they are made to be drunk within a year or two of there production) and there is no obvious advantage of using cork.) screw-cap is an obvious choice though many, including me, miss the romance of uncorking the bottle.
In all fairness, the cork producers-mostly in Portugal, are improving the quality and spending heavy amounts before the industry dies. However, as a consumer, we don’t really need to worry too much about it-and should leave it to the wine producer to decide. Certainly, it is unfair to say that ‘real’ wine (which our reader apparently mistakenly perceives as good quality wine) is with cork- only.
For any other question or comment, we welcome you to contact us at delWine. It is almost a cliché to say that in wine there are no silly questions- but only silly answers. In this case our reader asked a very pertinent question and hopefully, my answer is not silly!!