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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2004

Wine's quality will indicate best bottle seal

Cork, cap, or stopper: How should a bottle of wine be sealed? A torrent of proposals, conflicting claims, and reports from vineyards and wineries are gushing through the world's wine press.

Intractable antipathies are appearing, suggesting to a skeptic that more than the quality of the product may be at stake: economics, perhaps. Places such as Portugal, southern Spain, and southern Italy are the principal sources of natural cork, and are among the poorest areas of the western world.

On its face, the issue is how best to seal a bottle of wine: with traditional natural cork, cut from the bark of a distinctive Mediterranean oak; a plastic imitation cork; a screw cap; or a crown cap, the sort of stopper that seals a bottle of beer or a soft drink.

Cork is flexible. Once inserted in the neck of the bottle, it expands, forming a tight seal. The problem is that like the grape, it is organic, subject to disease. On the whole, it keeps adulteration out, but sometimes (how frequently is a bone of contention) it brings along contaminants of its own.

Plastic imitation corks are generally inflexible, and are made slightly larger. This improves the seal, but requires that the stopper must be driven in forcefully, and in consequence is harder to draw out.

Screw caps are a big step from traditional natural cork (just as wine is a big step beyond Coca-Cola), and few wineries are willing to bet a few million dollars on the unknown. The industry was shaken at an international conference last winter when a leading Australian winemaker explained that after an extended comparison of cork and screw cap, he found neither satisfactory.

Mass reliance on screw caps, some chemists warn, may soon replace "corky" contamination with an odor still worse: rotten-egg contamination.

What's the customer to do?

First, go hand-in-hand with the winemakers and bear with their experiments, at least until you notice that a dinnertime bottle has an unfamiliar flavor or smells like hydrogen sulfide.

Next, keep as-is the precious bottle you've put aside to celebrate a far-off big anniversary, burning the mortgage, marrying the last daughter, or similar event in the life of the family. Those of us in the business - I've yet to meet an exception - leave the cork in the bottle, the way it came; going by past performance, the odds are better.

JUST BECAUSE IT'S AUSTRALIAN doesn't mean it's guaranteed good. A Greg Norman Estates-cabernet sauvignon and syrah blend is happily memorable. A Black Swan cabernet sauvignon-syrah blend is ... well ... not a happy marriage.



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