Tuesday, January 29, 2008

To Cork or Not to Cork by George M. Taber

The conflict has already become both emotional and vicious... Some... have turned into shills for one camp or the other, often making unsubstantiated and outrageous claims about their favorite products, while self-righteously condemning someone else's...
    Friendships wither away when people can no longer carry on a civilized dialogue about something that in the large scope of things is pretty inconsequential.

George M. Taber has the knack of bringing his readers into the world of wine. He follows the brilliant Judgement of Paris, in which he chronicled an industry-shaking blind taste test in France that awarded top position to a California wine, with To Cork or Not To Cork (subtitled: "Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle").

Anyone who has loving laid down a wine to age, postponing its enjoyment for years to allow it to mature in the bottle, only to be met with aromas of wet cardboard and mildew upon uncorking it, knows the problem. It's called "corked", that musty, unpleasant spoilage, and it utterly ruins the wine. As long as the incidence was low, it was a known but tolerated random risk with wine; vintners routinely replaced bottles that were found to be corked, and ate the loss. It was just part of doing business in the industry.

But as Taber details in this book, during the 1970s and '80s, the incidence of corking in wines grew alarmingly, even as the chemicals that caused it were finally identified. A sensitive palate could detect as little as 3 parts per trillion of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), but wine cork shipments to the US were sometimes measured with ten or even a hundred times that amount of TCA.

New World winemakers suspected they were being sent the rejects of European wineries, although it may have been due to the long-term effects of Spanish Civil War and World War devastation of the cork forests in Spain and Portugal more than a deliberate strategy to short-change Western vintners. When corked wines began to seriously impact their bottom lines, however, wineries began looking for alternatives to cork.

The problem with substitutes, though, as Taber reveals, was that they ran smack up against tradition and perception. The experience of pulling a wine cork was a crucial part of the romantic experience of enjoying a good wine. And the early association of alternative closures with cheap jug wines and low-quality, inexpensive product made consumers reject wines that were not stopped with cork.

Besides that, wine-making is not a science; it is an art form supported by science, experience, and guess-work. Vintners hesitated to use cork substitutes without knowledge of how the cork contributed to the production of wine. When the lead time for a wine might be ten or more years, testing alternative wine-bottle closures meant taking an immense gamble on their product. All agreed that something had to be done, but what?

With careful history interspersed with "Message in a Bottle" anecdotes, Taber tells us what they did in New Zealand and Australia, in the wine country of California and Washington, in the vineyards of France and Germany, and in the cork forests of Spain and Portugal, to battle TCA and build great wines.

I read this one with cork drawn from a Pastori 2003 port, with T-top pulled from a creamy Obsborne Coquinero Sherry, and with screw-top removed from a luscious Lawson Dry Hills Late Harvest Reisling from New Zealand. All wonderful wines — I tasted with a new appreciation of the art of making wine, in which the "inconsequential" choice of a stopper could make such a difference in the end product.



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