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Tim Atkin MW: Closing off the cork-vs-cap conundrum

Published:  31 January, 2019


Wine critic, broadcaster,

co-chair of the IWC


The Japanese have a single word for it: tsundoku. The English translation is less succinct, but the phenomenon will be familiar to many of you: the practice of buying more books than one can possibly read.

There’s no word in Japanese, as far as I know, for someone who purchases too much wine. But the good thing is that it’s easier to reduce the pile of bottles than it is to read a dozen hardbacks. I should know. I took delivery of a case of mind-blowing 2016 Artuke La Condenada from Rioja the other day and I needed to create some space in my cellar.

That’s how I found myself tasting a bunch of white wines that I’d forgotten about, ranging in age from 1997 to 2007. There were nine of them in all: five from Australia, one from New Zealand and three from France. More significant than their origin, as it turned out, was their closure.

With one exception – a 1997 Grosset Chardonnay – the half-dozen New World wines were bottled under screwcap. (Ironically, Jeffrey Grosset was one of the pioneers of the Australian Screwcap Initiative in 2000). The trio of Gallic wines, on the other hand, were under cork, which is no surprise given the suspicion that alternative closures still engender in France.

The results weren’t conclusive, let alone scientific, but they were, I think , significant. Three of the four wines under cork – the Grosset, a 2002 Domaine du Pimont Saint Aubin Premier Cru Le Charmois and a 2007 Domaine Gérard Thomas Saint Aubin Premier Cru Sous Roche Dumay – were “stuffed”, as they like to say in Australia. Only the more lowly 2004 Le Faîte Côtes de Saint Mont was a pleasure to drink.

And the screwcapped wines? You might expect the 2006 Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Hunter Valley Semillon to be fresh and crisp, given that region’s reputation for long-lived wines. Ditto the 2001 Peter Lehmann Reserve Riesling and the 2005 Howard Park Riesling. But the two Chardonnays – 2004 Eileen Hardy and 2004 Neudorf Moutere – were also both delicious, with evidence of subtle and even development.


Random oxidation in white Burgundy is definitely less of a problem than it was a decade ago when I bought my two Saint Aubins. A few days after I opened them, I enjoyed a super-fresh 2010 Raveneau Premier Cru Chapelot under cork in Chablis, proving that white Burgundy can age. But then, back home, I poured a 2014 Jacques Carillon Puligny-Montrachet and it was TCA-affected. Three of these four wines would have tasted much better under screwcap.

It is now nearly twenty years since those Clare Valley producers, Jeffrey Grosset included, decided to switch to screwcaps. It was a bold move at the time, and not without commercial risk, and it has had a lasting influence on the world of wine. Two decades on, I’ve come to the conclusion that for white wines, screwcaps are the closure of choice, be it for reasons of convenience, freshness, absence of cork taint or potential longevity.

Reds are a different story. Very few of the world’s top producers use screwcaps. Even Penfolds Grange hasn’t done so, although winemaker Peter Gago says that this is because screwcaps don’t show heat damage, rather than because of concern about how the wine evolves. But Penfolds has been experimenting with them – as has at least one Bordeaux first growth – although I think they’re right to be cautious where tannic, age-worthy wines are concerned.

Most red wines seem to age differently under cork and screwcap. A good cork is generally better to me – although I recently tasted the excellent 2015 Mérite Merlot from Wrattonbully under both and preferred the screwcap for its brightness – but the technology and the experience of the winemakers using the closure is evolving. Cork taint, like random oxidation in Burgundy, is less prevalent than it was, but there’s still too much of both about.