Friday, March 16, 2012

Of Stelvin and Corks

A Tale of Two Bottles...

The Debate
In North America, the screw cap bottle enclosure (or "Stelvin cap" as it is often referred to in a Kleenex sort of way) is still associated with cheap, "jug" wines to many wine drinkers and thus is rarely seen on quality, mid-to-high range products worthy of one's cellar. It's a perception that the Okanagan Valley's Tinhorn Creek Vineyards would like to change.

The winery's love affair with the screw cap began 10 years ago when they bottled half of the winery's first reserve level wine, the Oldfield Series Merlot, with traditional cork and half using the Stelvin metal enclosure. With the foresight and attention span that few producers have (or can afford) cases of both wines were squirreled away to gauge the aging ability of the screw cap wines against their identical corked brethren. The results have convinced Tinhorn's CEO and head winemaker Sandra Oldfield to switch the entire portfolio over to Stelvin - including their small-lot, age-worthy Oldfield Series releases. The only exception is the winery's 200ml Icewine/Late Harvest bottle which is expected to also switch to metal enclosures once a suitable replacement has been found.

The benefits of screw caps are many, ranging from ease of use (yes, not everyone enjoys uncorking a bottle of wine) to the financial piece of mind that when your wines that leave the winery, none will come back due to a tainted cork. But can screw cap enclosures truly allow the wine to evolve and live out its normal life-cycle of youthful-to-peak-to-unavoidable decline?

As with all living things, the key is oxygen. Too much will make the wine age fast and spoil. Too little will halt the natural development altogether. Cork does this very well allowing minute amounts of oxygen through its porous fibers allotting wine the controlled access it desires. The long track record of cork is mixed with both success and failure. Corks can dry-up and shrink over time which can lead to too much oxygen reaching the wine and they can taint the wine with trichloroanisle (or TCA) which makes the wine undrinkable. Both of these problems are avoided using a metal screw cap enclosure which, contrary to popular knowledge, does allow the wine to "breath" and therefore promotes the same evolution over time. However, so few age-worthy wines have been bottled under screw cap that little practical proof is available. Until now.

The Wine
Tinhorn Creek Vineyards 2001 Oldfield Series Merlot
At 11 years old, this Merlot, produced from fruit grown on the Golden Mile and Black Sage benches, serves to debunk two myths: 1) that Stelvin cap wines can't age and 2) BC wines won't survive a long incubation. The result? A resounding "Yes they can!" on both fronts.

When comparing the two wines side-by-side, I was amazed to find that the colour, from the core to the quarter-rim, was exactly the same tint and clarity of dark garnet. Both the screw cap and cork bottle had evolved beautifully with a lovely bouquet of raspberry-mocha, graphite and spices with fine mellowed tannins, spicy oak and dark berry fruit flavours on the mouth watering palate.

Was the screw cap wine better or worse than the cork bottle? No, the quality remained exactly the same - and isn't that the point? The wines did evolve differently with the screw cap bottle retaining slightly more elevated fruit character on the nose and the cork enclosed bottle offering a tad more spice on the palate. Otherwise, the wines were identical.... equal.

The Conclusion
The Tinhorn experiment is far from scientific with only one vintage and one variety selected for the double bottling. Yet, the result is pretty persuasive with the main point being that the wine was proven to age as if it had been enclosed by cork without the 10-15% of heartache involved with spoiled wine. Hopefully more folks will accept screw cap enclosures on cellar worthy wines over time, but admittedly, there will always be wine lovers who will prefer their wines enclosed with a material that pops when pulled rather than one which cracks when twisted. Perceptions are hard to change.
 - Liam Carrier ©copyright 2012

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