The Fault of Corks

Corks

I’ve just finished a blind tasting of 60 current-release pinot noirs, of which only one was sealed by natural cork. And it was corked… tainted by a TCA-contaminated cork.

And it was French – a red Burgundy. The only one in the group.

I wish I could say this is an unusual occurrence, but it’s not. It’s actually common.

Time and time again I do a tasting of between 50 and 200 wines of which there is a minority of cork-sealed wines, and almost always there’s at least one that’s corked. If the subject is chardonnay, there’s bound to be a corked or oxidised white Burgundy. And of course Burgundy is expensive. The corked wine in such a group is always sure to be one of the most expensive bottles – Burgundy costs at least $50 for a village-level wine and at least $100 for a premier cru.

In today’s pinot tasting, nine of the Australian wines were sealed by Diam cork, a composite cork made of fragments of cork that have been treated to remove any TCA. In my experience, they’re virtually certain to be TCA-free. If a winemaker is determined to seal his or her wine with cork, Diam is the only option, in my view.

I believe it’s a no-brainer to use a screwcap, Diam or other alternative closure (the glass Vino-lok stopper seems to be a winner, too) in preference to such an unreliable closure as natural cork.

So why do the French lag behind in their attitude to closures? I’d say it’s a combination of hide-bound tradition, denial, and a touch of good old Gallic arrogance.

If you taste as many wines as I do, you too would be horrified at the incidence of faults in cork-sealed wine. The failures are mostly TCA and other taints, and sporadic oxidation. Of course, as the people in the cork industry never tire of reminding me, cork is not the only potential source of contamination. TCA, for example, can come from the timber in pallets, in winery buildings, in drains, cleaning chemicals, or even the atmosphere. But here’s the test: if you have a musty bottle, then open a second bottle and find the wine is good, it’s almost always a sure sign that the first one was tainted by its cork.

So – what was the most outstanding pinot noir of the 60? Oakdene Single Vineyard Peta’s Pinot Noir 2009 (review forthcoming), from Geelong’s Bellarine Peninsula, was my ‘discovery’. It’s a great wine, and only $30 a bottle. I rated it 96. A fantastic buy for any pinot lover. One of the big disappointments in local pinot is lack of depth: many of the 2010s are weak, dilute, even watery. But the Oakdene had terrific concentration as well as great perfume and complex, distinctive pinot noir fruit character. Its finish lingered on and on. And of course it has a screwcap, your guarantee that every bottle will be consistently fresh and untainted.

Footnote:

There are a few French wines imported with screwcaps. Alsace producers have been the quickest to adopt the screwcap (eg. Dopff-au-Moulin from Dan Murphy’s), and several inexpensive wines from other places such as the Languedoc and Midi have eschewed the cork.

The Marchand & Burch French Collection wines – a joint project between Burgundy winemaker Pascal Marchand and the owner of Howard Park, Jeff Burch, are all screwcapped. The red and white Burgundies include some seriously expensive grand cru wines, such as the $510 Chambertin Clos de Beze 2009 and $398 Mazis-Chambertin 2009. Other top Burgundy wines also under screwcap include the superb Benjamin Leroux wines imported by Bibendum, and the French wines imported by Treasury Wine Estates (the former Foster’s), under the banner Maison de Grand Esprit. They shipped a wonderful grand cru Montrachet a couple of years back which was especially notable!

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