Friday, May 23, 2008

New High-tech Wine Cap Design: An advance, Or...

A competition, called Big Bang, founded in 2000 by students at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management has awarded its top prize of $15,000 to a design for a new wine bottle closure that would allow the wine to breathe much like traditional bark corks.

The folks behind this certainly seem to have all the knowledge and experience needed to do this.

Their team, Advanced Enological Closures, set out to design a better bottle cap because cork taint, a byproduct of a fungus that infects cork and makes wine smell like moldy mop water or sweaty gym socks, now contaminates the corks of an estimated one in 20 wine bottles on store shelves, ruining billions of dollars of wine annually. Although synthetic corks have been developed in response to the problem, they allow too much oxygen into the bottle, according to Keller. Overly oxidized wine has a shorter shelf life and can develop a fingernail-polish odor. Screw caps -- another alternative to bark corks -- are a viable option for wine white, but do not allow in enough oxygen for fine red wines, Keller said. Without enough oxygen to draw on, red wines start to smell like burned rubber or matchsticks as they age. LINK

But wait! The idea does seem a bit strange, especially given that oxygen is the enemy of wine.

The team's design, a "breathing screw cap," has small vent holes and is fitted with a liner made of alternating layers of thin metal and a porous polymer. The liner can be customized to allow optimal oxidation for specific varietals, something that is impossible with bark corks. A patent is pending for the design.

"If you open up lots of bottles of the same wine, you'll notice variability from bottle to bottle because of differences in the amount of oxygen that gets in," Keller said. "With cork, you just never know. Our product will give a level of control that the wine industry has never had."

Then there was this.

Keller's design offers the prospect of a cap that eliminates the worry about taint while still letting in oxygen.

His team's patent-pending design – which so far lacks a catchy name – is a 5-cent disc that fits beneath a screw cap. Made from alternating layers of polyethylene – the same material used to make sandwich bags – and perforated aluminum or tin, it can be fine-tuned to match the oxygen demands of different varietals.

"Pinot noir needs a little, cabernet sauvignon needs a lot," Keller said.

That last statement sounds just a little, no make that a lot, like rubbish. It is known that oxygen levels can vary among different grape varieties, but that has been demonstrated during the winemaking process. To my knowledge there is no evidence that different grape varieties require different levels of infusible oxygen during aging. To reconfirm just how important a lack of oxygen is to wine I turned to the best source of knowledge on screwcaps, Tyson Stelzer. Here is a little of what he wrote in 2007.

The question of the ageing rate of wines in screw cap has been a hot topic of late. It is my belief that the rate at which mature notes (or "characters," as we say Down Under) develop in screw-capped wines is in fact absolutely no different to that under traditional closures. This is evidenced by the fact that wines under screw cap age at a similar rate to those with the very best corks. For a wine under an average cork, however, oxidation effects give the impression of accelerated ageing, which has led to the notion that wines mature slower under screw caps. I believe that the absence of oxidized characters in screw-capped wines gives the mistaken impression of slower ageing.


More criticism has been levelled at screw caps by the media in relation to reductive characters than any other fault. I encourage you to view these accusations objectively and judge for yourself. If there is a causal link between screw caps and reductive characters, as some claim, then we should be tasting more reductive wines under screw cap than under cork.

Check it out for yourself, but my experience, and that of hundreds of experts with whom I have had this conversation, is quite the opposite. In my own tastings in recent years, comprising thousands of predominantly Australian and New Zealand wines, I have encountered more reductive wines under cork than I have under screw cap.

The managing director of the AWRI, Professor Sakkie Pretorius, commented recently that "The idea that there is a high incidence of post-bottling reduction in wines sealed with screw caps is a false premise. With Australian wines, where the AWRI has particular expertise, this is demonstrably not the case…. Our position, which we believe is undeniable, remains that the propensity of a wine to develop 'reductive' aromas post-bottling is a function of the wine, and that post-bottling reduction is not the 'fault' of the closure but may be exacerbated by the closure if the wine has a propensity for such aromas to develop."

"In his Screw Cap Symposium presentation, Peter Godden discussed data from one of our AWRI Advanced Wine Assessment Courses which indicates a higher incidence of reduction in wines sealed with cork compared to wines sealed with screw caps. Two subsequent courses have provided similar data."

That seems pretty clear to me.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Len Evans Tutorial

In a previous post I mentioned that one of the major (and hopefully) lasting contributions of the great Len Evans to Australian, and indeed world, wine was a five day tutorial. Held annually since 2001 The Len Evans Tutorial hosts 12 selected scholars to a stunning array of wines. But its just not about drinking fine wine. Each day starts with the blind tastings, and judging, of 30 varietal wines. In the afternoon there are masterclasses focusing on recent vintages of the greatest wines of France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Dinner is a more relaxed affair comprising five or more brackets of wines, some 40 or more years old. On the final morning the six red Burgundies of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti are presented blind, and each scholar has to identify the vintage, and the six Appellation Controlees from which they respectively come. The complete wine list for the 2007 tutorial was an amazing collection of wines.

Want to be part of what James Halliday has called "the most exclusive wine school in the world"? All you have to do is apply to be one of the dozen selected.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Think you know Australian Wine?

Consider yourself an expert on Aussie wine? Able to identify the characteristics of a Rutherglen Fortified, an Eden Valley Riesling, or a Semillon from the Hunter? Think you know the difference between a Shiraz from the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Grampians? Then you should be a star when you take Wine Australia’s Regional Heroes Tasting Challenge.

If taking the challenge is a little too daunting, or you don't know all that much about Aussie wine then click on the Taste Chart and drag and drop the different wine styles to learn about their characteristics.

UPDATE: I made one error for each of Barossa Valley GSM, Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River Chardonnay, Grampians Shiraz, Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, and Great Southern Riesling. Not bad but 14/20 correct ain't fantastic. I take some consolation in the fact that my errors are with wines that I have not seen a lot of, except what's with not knowing Margaret River Chardy?

Does Aussie shiraz taste different from different regions?

Its unfair, but irrespective of its diversity Australian Shiraz very often gets tarred with the same brush. More often than not they are called big, oaky, fruity wines that have outrageous levels of alcohol and come in bottles invariably labeled with some animal. Those with this opinion almost always have very little knowledge or experience of the diversity of wines that the Shiraz grape can produce in Australia. It is also quite obvious that those who hold this truly naïve opinion do not live in the land down under. That gives them an excuse because only a few rays of the full spectrum of Aussie Shiraz ever leave the shores of the island continent.

Fortunately attempts are being made to change this narrow perception of Australian wine. You can navigate your way around Wine Australia’s discussion on the Regional Heroes of Australian wine. Its not specific to Shiraz but you are guaranteed to learn something about Australian wine, or you can listen to Australian wine writer Campbell Mattinson talk about the regional characters of four Shiraz wines from different regions. The best part is that all four are under $20AUD. Less exciting is the possibility that most are unlikely to be available outside Australia. It can’t be helped. Australia does not export all its best wines.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Robert who?

To be quite honest I have tasted few Mondavi wines and purchased even less and have none in my cellar. On my few trips to Napa we have driven by the Robert Mondavi Winery, admired its singular presence in the valley, but never ventured past the gate. But then I must also confess that I never had many wines from the Rothbury Estate, the Hunter Valley winery which once had the famed and much loved Len Evans as its Chairman. I was never fortunate enough to meet either of these giants of the wine world. Actually that should really be giants of New World wine because both, pretty much over the same time period, were intent on advancing the growth of wine and wine appreciation on either side of the Pacific Ocean. Mondavi built Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966 and in 1962 Evans had become Australia’s first wine columnist. As the Mondavi reputation grew in the 1970’s so did the Evans’ wine shop and restaurant Bulletin Place; where Jancis Robinson noted “the people who by now constituted the beginnings of the Australian wine mafia” would gather.

There are great similarities between these two men. Both labored against significant odds in their quests to have the wines of their country recognized as world class. Both had their wine endeavors disrupted by those searching for the quick buck rather than the accolades of wine drinkers. Both saw wine as a world wide enterprise. Most importantly, both had the foresight to realise that education was the way of the future for wine. Mondavi’s ventures in this sphere eclipse those of the more pragmatic Evans. Mondavi played a significant role in the establishment of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, in the city of Napa, and was the major benefactor for the soon to open Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis. Evans was a major mover and shaker in the revamping of the Australian wine show circuit, leading to great improvements in Australian wine. But perhaps his most lasting contribution will be the Len Evans Tutorials at which carefully selected young Australian wine makers/tasters are expsosed, over a number of days, to some of the finest wines of the world so that they can appreciate not only the world of wine but Australia’s place in it.

Robert who? There will be those who ask that question. They won't be the same as those who asked Len who? None of us can know all that there is about wine or the individuals involved, but as the giants who carried much of the weight of bringing wine to the masses leave us, the question must be asked. Who will replace them?