The sommelier presented the bottle with a flourish. I checked the label and nodded. He drew himself up and held the bottle before us like a religious object, gazing beatifically at a point somewhere over our heads. Then, with a deliberate, elegant motion, he unscrewed the cap.
We were at Nahm, one of London's best new restaurants and the first Thai restaurant to receive a Michelin star. The wine was one of Australia's finest Rieslings, a Mt. Horrocks 2002 from Watervale, in the Clare Valley north of Adelaide. We thought it would be perfect with the Thai feast we were about to enjoy in the beautiful honey-colored dining room at the cutting edge of London's burgeoning restaurant scene.
It was indeed perfect, and then some. Its lime-peach fruit, vibrant acidity and pinpoint balance played in and out of the complex flavors and textures of dish after dish. And when it was time to order another bottle, we did so knowing it would be just as wonderful as the first, thanks to the reliable screw cap.
Like it or not--and many wine lovers aren't sure they do--the screw cap is here to stay. After decades of flirtation, high-end wine producers are making a serious commitment to the cork alternative once thought suitable only for jug wines. And California, the premium-wine capital, is at the forefront of the movement in America.
By most current estimates, 3% to 5% of all cork-finished wines are compromised by the cork. The problem is caused by a naturally occurring microorganism (trichloroanisole, or TCA, if you absolutely must know) present in the oak tree bark from which corks are made. The bacteria secrete one of the most highly aromatic compounds known to science, which can introduce off-aromas and flavors to individual bottles of even the best wine. A badly corked wine smells like a wet dog. Even at sub-threshold levels a bad cork can deaden the wine's aromatic freshness.
Cork-tainted wine has always been like the weather: Everyone complains, but nobody does anything about it. Finally, several years ago some Australian producers boldly decided to eliminate corks altogether.
Mt. Horrocks' proprietor, Stephanie Toole, was among the innovators, a group of Clare Valley Riesling producers led by the Riesling master Jeffrey Grosset and including labels such as Mt. Horrocks, Grosset, Queltaler, Knappstein, Petaluma and several others.
"We finally decided that if we're serious about people laying our wines down for 10 years, we have to do something about the cork problem," said Grosset. "It's just not fair to expect our customers to cellar our wines with the risk that a certain percentage will be tainted."
It's no accident that Riesling producers took the initiative. They're particularly susceptible to the problem. "Riesling fruit in particular is so delicate and complex that it can be tainted by the most minute levels of TCA," says Grosset.
"In fact, many of us have long suspected that the presence of this piece of wood in the mouth of the bottle may compromise Riesling fruit even without TCA contamination."
The Clare producers collectively bottled most of their vintage 2000 Rieslings in distinctive blue bottles with metal screw-cap closures called Stelcaps, a cosmetic update of the French-made Stelvin closure, developed in the late 1950s.
The next year virtually all the Clare Valley and Eden Valley Riesling producers went to Stelcaps. Last year they were joined by a number of other producers in Australia. Southcorp, Australia's largest wine group, bottled all its 2001 Rieslings with Stelcaps under the Penfolds, Rosemount and Wynn's labels. Several New Zealand wineries got on board, too.
Early this month, the movement spread to the Northern Hemisphere when Oregon's Argyle Winery (owned by the prominent Australian vintner Brian Croser) announced it would bottle most of its 2002 wines with caps. And California's own Randall Grahm said he will bottle about 80,000 cases of red and white Bonny Doon wine with Stelvin screw tops. Sonoma-Cutrer has also bottled some of its Chardonnay with screw caps, and Downing Vineyards has done the same with some 200 cases of Napa Valley Zinfandel.
By my count, more than 50 premium winemakers--primarily in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.--are bottling all or part of their production under screw caps.
The screw cap is a roll-on, tamper-evident closure composed of a threaded aluminum alloy cap with a multilayered liner. Compression of the liner against the glass creates a neutral, airtight seal. It's been the closure of choice for spirits, oils and other perishable liquids for more than 30 years.
Winemakers have long kept their own collections of library wines under screw cap because they know that it will protect better than cork.
The last bastion of cork, upscale reds, may fall to innovation sooner than anyone thinks. Jeffrey Grosset bottled his 2000 Gaia red blend under Stelvin (Stelcap's more robust cousin).