A discussion with Bill Williamson.
The Romans used cork but as their civilization disappeared, so did the use of cork until the mid 16th century.
In the wine world today it is still generally felt real cork is better for red wine because it can still breathe slightly, allowing wine maturation processes to slowly continue. There is some research to disagree with this and while the debate continues there is no one solution emerging as "better than cork", but there are different degrees of cork quality.
Cork is harvested for commercial use from Quercus suber (cork oak) that is endemic to southwest Europe. Cork is composed of suberin, a hydrophobic or water repelling substance.
Our red wines are sealed using corks from Portugal. Our cork supplier maintains state of the art facilities in Portugal, France and California. Like wine making, cork production is a meticulous art form. Many vital measures and processes are involved in the transformation of cork oak bark into high quality cork wine stoppers.
Wine corks can deteriorate with age; becoming dry and crumbly. They can then fail to seal the bottle so when storing wine it is best to lay the bottles on their side to ensure the cork is in contact with the wine to help prevent it from drying out.
Some express concern that if the cork is permitted to dry out it might shrink and let the wine leak out. Our corks start out with a width of 24mm and approximately 20% of their size is reduced by being rammed into the 20mm wide bottle neck during the bottling process. Since cork is a dense material with a high degree of elasticity it is somewhat unlikely that it will shrink much further on its own within the first 10 years provided it is a good quality cork and the wine is stored in a correct environment.
To maintain consistency a wine cork needs about 70% humidity, something like your bathroom humidity immediately after a hot shower. Without this they will dry and crumble. The good news is, if the bottles are stored so the wine covers the cork, the lower third of the cork should remain solid and maintain its seal.
Some believe that a dry cork means that the bottle has let in air, thus oxidizing the wine. Others believe that if the wine has penetrated all the way through the cork the wine will be ruined. The only way to tell if the wine is good is to smell and taste it.
In February 2010 we opened a 1982 Château Margaux, one of the Premier Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux which, in 1984 probably sold for $150 and today is available at $2,350 per bottle. Its cork was soaked all the way through with wine and the wine had crusted around the top rim under the capsule. It was impossible to tell if the wine had spoiled so we obviously had to drink it. It was magnificent, but its time had arrived. It seemed that the cork and the wine crested simultaneously. So if you suspect, you should investigate.
Individual corks can have flaws. Because they are cut from the bark of an oak tree, some corks may have imperfections which are not visible at the point of quality control inspection. If ever you receive a bottle of our wine and the cork has a flaw let us know and we will replace the wine with your next shipment.
A common cork issue is when the cork breaks off halfway down the neck of the bottle as you attempt to open the wine. If the corkscrew cannot get a purchase in the remaining cork then you can, very gently, push the cork into the wine being careful that the wine does not splash up. Also take care pouring the wine. It's not ascetically ideal, but it will not harm the flavor of the wine. For better appearance decant the wine and pour from the decanter.
Someone exclaims, "This wine is corked!" This usually means the aroma may seem musty, like wet cardboard. Actually corked wines are tainted with Trichloroanisole (TCA) a harmless but ubiquitous environmental compound that gives wine a musty flavor at very low concentrations and is responsible for producing the "corked" smell. (Often the wine will taste fine, it just smells like wet cardboard)
In the years up to 2004 it was estimated that approximately 5% of all wines produced in the U.S. were "corked" but that may not be a flaw of the cork. Often when a wine fails to meet expectations, the cork gets blamed.
Several U.S. wineries found outbreaks of mold in their winery and unknowingly used chlorine for sanitation while many European cork producers used bleach during cork processing. Wine with TCA from bad winery practices was still labeled "corked" so corks ended up with an undeserved bad reputation, especially in light of the fact that both cork producers and responsible wineries have since outlawed the use of bleach. Progressive cork producers now adopt the “curative approach,” simply assuming TCA will be present and then processing to remove it, with successful results.
Why stick with cork for wine bottles? It does more than just preserve the quality and character of your wine. It preserves old-growth cork oak forests and a centuries-long way of life through sustainable harvesting of the bark. And it helps preserve the planet by naturally absorbing carbon, the greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.
Artificial plastic stoppers or screw caps on the other hand consume fossil fuels, and use at least five times more energy per ton to produce, before millions of them end up in our landfills and oceans. It may seem like a little thing, but using natural cork is something good we can do.