Have you ever been decanting a wine and wondered to yourself, why am I doing this? What benefit is this going to give the delicious bottle of Margaux that I’ve lovingly stored away in my cellar for the last ten years? Which may bring you to wonder why you even needed to age that wine in the first place: will it make it better or should you have opened and enjoyed it years ago?
These are just a few of the dilemmas facing today’s wine consumer which are brought to my attention on a daily basis. Whether an experienced aficionado or a fledgling enthusiast taking the first steps in the shallows of the vast ocean that is the wine trade, there will always be some questions left unanswered and strongly held opinions disputed. This is my chance to set the record straight, answer some of those questions you might hesitate to ask, and generally provide you with some information to help you get the most out of the wines you know and love and the wines you are yet to discover….
Corks, Synthetics, Crown closures and Screw-caps
There are many different types of closures available in today’s industry, all with their own advantages and disadvantages for the wine which will influence a winery’s decision in what to use. The most well known is the traditional cork, used to stopper wine for hundreds of years. Cork is an organic material contained in the bark of the cork tree, a sub-species of Oak found largely in the western Mediterranean with roughly 30% found in the cork forests of southern Portugal. The bark can be harvested without harming the tree itself – this however, may only take place every nine years to allow the tree to fully recover and produce more bark for the next harvest.
The first property which makes this a suitable material as a wine stopper is its elasticity, allowing it to be squeezed into the bottle neck to form a tight seal. However, what we are mainly interested in here is the porous quality of the cork which allows oxygen to slowly work its way into the wine reacting with compounds within it, thus altering the flavor components, softening tannins and continually changing the character of the wine. Here we might assume that this would be a desirable trait for the aging of some of our fine wines – did someone mention Margaux?
The major downside to using cork is the ever present threat of cork taint, one of the most common faults (along with oxidation) to be found in spoiled wine. Cork taint produces an off-putting moldy, damp smell with varying levels of intensity which is most commonly caused from a by-product of the cork bleaching process that produces a chemical called Trichloranisole or TCA, responsible for this undesirable aroma.
Alongside traditional cork (of which there are many types and quality levels), there are synthetic cork options made from plastic compounds. The major advantage of these is the prevention of cork taint and oxidation, also the cost of manufacture is significantly reduced. However, although rare, there can occasionally be other chemical taint in the wine from the plastics and materials the corks are made from. The other downside is it becomes difficult to re-stopper the bottle with a synthetic cork as it is not as elastic and pliable as true cork.
Lastly, screw-caps and crown caps (a standard closure commonly used on beer bottles) offer another choice for the winemaker. Both of these options use inert materials to prevent faults in the wine keeping it fresh and both are relatively cheap to produce. Again, both of these choices leave little room for the aging potential of true cork. Sadly, the major downside to these types of closures is the public perception that it is an inferior product if either of these options is used.
To summarize, corks, synthetics, screw-caps and crown-caps all have their specific advantages and disadvantages. It is simply a case of the right tool for the right application, for example, I wouldn’t want my 1983 bottle of Mouton-Rothschild to have a crown cap just like it might not be necessary to have a high quality cork on an everyday bottle of $10 white wine I would drink within a couple of days – how much extra complexity could it develop in that time?
Does glassware make a difference/which glass for which wine?
The question of which glassware to use is a very broad and hotly debated topic; one which I am just going to give a brief outline of here, as there are many opinions and debates about this subject.
For most wine drinkers from the inexperienced to the connoisseur, three different glasses should be all you need to get the most out of your wines without clogging up your all important cupboard space with huge amounts of glassware. These three glasses should enable you to experience a multitude of white, red and sparkling wines.
The first glass you will need is a flute for sparkling wines and Champagnes. This is a very distinctive glass comprising a tall and narrow shape designed with a small surface area at the base of the bowl to maintain the flow of bubbles universally associated with Champagne. A wide bowled glass would dissipate the bubbles far too quickly creating a flat, undesirable wine.
The second glass should be able to encompass a range of white wines, a somewhat tricky task as there are many different types ranging from crisp Rieslings to rich buttery Chardonnays – the goal here is to find a glass that will fit somewhere in the middle. A white wine is typically lighter than a red with a very distinct yet delicate aroma, to capture this aroma at its fullest the glass should be tulip shaped with a relatively narrow aperture to focus the aromas of the wine on the nose to achieve the most concentrated and distinctive profile.
Where you may want to experiment with different glasses for white wines is having one as mentioned above for lighter wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris and another for more heavily oaked Chardonnays and fuller bodied whites. For this category the body and aperture of the glass can be wider to allow the stronger aromas space to develop – they may be overpowering if focused directly on the nose.
To complete the lineup, you will need a glass for those sumptuous and silky red wines. For this, the shape will move from tulip to a much larger fishbowl shape with a wide aperture. As red wine tends to have a rich density to it the aroma often seems to be almost trapped in the wine creating what is commonly referred to as a closed aroma. The wide bowl combined with a little time and some gentle swirling releases the aroma to allow the wine to become much more expressive and full of character.
Armed with these three different wine glasses you should be able to enjoy most of what the wine trade can throw at you! From here it is simply a matter of experimentation to find out which glass best suits the wines you enjoy, happy tasting!
In Part II of “Common Questions in the Wine Trade”, I will address how to store, age and serve wines.
Christian B., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant