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Snooth User: Diego Andrés Díaz

Types of Corks and wine quality

Posted by Diego Andrés Díaz, Mar 28, 2013.

Somewhere i read that according to the quality of wine, the winemakers choose what kind of cork they are going to use ( when they decided to use corks instead of screwcaps or glass stoppers). The long corks, made of only one piece, we're reserved for the better wines, while the short, composite corks are used in the cheap ones. Is this truth???

Replies

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Reply by EMark, Mar 29, 2013.

I suspect that there might be correlation, Diego, but I doubt that it is as easy as that.

I agree that the really short corks seem to appear in the "economy class wines."  Same for those plastic and spongy stoppers.  However, it is too easy for a mid-range producer to stick in a long cork for a few extra cents and let buyers jump to the conclusion that "Ooh, it has a long cork.  It must be of exceptional quality."

The Australia and New Zealand wine industries seem to be fully embracing screw caps.

More and more highly regarded California wineries that are using screw caps.

I recall about a year ago hearing of a well-regarded Burgundy house (sorry, the name escapes me) moving to alternative stoppers.

 

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Reply by gregt, Mar 29, 2013.

Leaving aside the alternatives to cork, there is often, but not every single time, a correlation. Emark suggest something that would appeal to the cynical among us - use a better cork, a more expensive bottle, a "reserva" designation, and you can charge more for crappy wine. 

But let's imagine just for the moment that we're not dealing with tricksters, just with rational business people. 

Think of what a cork is. It's the bark of a tree that gets harvested at most every three years. First harvest from young trees is different quality than subsequent harvests, so the price of the cork, and the quality, will be different from later harvests. Then you might decide to harvest at five years, or some period other than three years. Those corks will be different as well.

Once the bark is harvested, it's washed and dried, then punched out into corks. The number of washings matter, the amount of drying and the length of the drying matters. More of something usually means more money.

And then you physically look at the corks. They can have tiny cracks and crevices. Corks are graded by the number of such defects they have. And then you have the length of the cork. So a long cork of the finest quality from excellent material can cost as much as $2-3. A cork that's not quite as good will be cheaper, then a shorter cork will also be cheaper, and so on down the line. 

Once the corks are all punched out, you have a big square piece of bark with a lot of holes in it. You take that, as well as the pieces that didn't quite make the grade, grind them up and glue them together to form an agglomerated cork. That's cheaper yet. Let's say you pay fifteen cents for one of those. Usually those corks aren't recommended for wines to be stored over say, two years or so.

So which cork would you use on your expensive wine and which one on your cheap wine? If you sell the wine for $12 on the shelf, that means it cost you maybe $3 or $4 to produce it - are you going to use a $2 cork or a twenty-cent cork? If it cost you maybe $20 to produce the wine, and you're selling for $120 a bottle, would you put in a cheap cork that the producer doesn't even recommend for storage over 2 years?

Plastic corks are also at the low end of the range.

So the type of cork you use would generally be related to the quality of the wine, but whether you use a different type of stopper altogether - that's not related to the quality of the wine.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 30, 2013.

Not much that I can add when GregT has spoken, but that doesn't stop me.  I am a cynic, and I have noted that there has been an inflation in many areas that doesn't correlate to the product in the bottle so much as to the price charged for it. I think it is safe to say that a longer cork with higher integrity is a good idea if the wine is meant to be aged.  Without researching it, however, I am going to go out on a limb (no pun intended--the bark comes from the trunk) and say that the law of diminishing returns with respect to preserving wines probably kicks in very drastically at a pretty short cork length assuming the quality is the same.  (Number of cracks, etc.)  In plain English, I would guess the difference between a 1 3/4" cork, 2" cork and any extra long cork is absolutely minimal.  I think the cracks and fissures are probably vastly more important. Longer cork means more chance for defects, so the price goes up disproportionately, too. 

Because the cork isn't visible at the time of purchase (well, usually--the omission of foil capsules is changing that), it's probably less effective to use a long cork just to jack up the price of your wine to the buyer.  The type of closure is visible and the perceptions against non-cork closures like Stelvins persist in many markets.  I agree with Emark that Oz and NZ are leading the way, but he gives California more credit than we deserve--Plumpjack and Saintsbury have tried to lead the way, but hardly anyone is following.  Bottle heft increases are so prevalent that the other day I saw what would have been a standard 75 cl (750 ml in the US) bottle on the shelf next to two others and thought, "Wow, someone is bottling 50 cl wines for sale in the US!  How novel."  Nope, it was a full sizer, but modest bottles are now the exception. Given the costs of bigger, heavier bottles and their non-effect on quality, why not assume that longer corks are just one small cost in the premium wine scam?  People can't evaluate cork quality, but they can see how long it is.

Where the cork length does help in marketing is in keeping the purchaser of your fine wine from feeling duped.  Of course, that means it is potentially part of the duping process, but when the buyer opens the wine (which is probably too young, and which should have been allowed to rest after shipping, and isn't necessarily all that great anyway), the long cork confirms his wisdom in paying so much for his Artemis/Bordeaux/Burgundy/SQN, you name it.  And it is a souvenir (hey, I collect my corks, and not my Stelvins, so I'm guilty, too) of an inherently transitory experience.  Empty bottles, after all, take too much space.  Wineries print their names and telephone numbers on them.  How is that good for the wine, putting ink down there?  Not the point.  My personal favorite:  Bell Wine Cellars puts their name, phone number and "Give us a ring!" on it.  (Get it, Bell, "Give us a ring?") No knocking their wines in these quarters, but it's marketing, not wine that counts as often as not.  And that premium cork is there so you don't forget what a brilliant decision you made, and you buy again.  So, yeah, it's part of the marketing. 

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Reply by Michael Bennett, Mar 31, 2013.

The screw caps were just coming in about when I retired from winemaking in 2005. I was, at first , a bit doubtful but bearing in mind the problems we had encountered for years with cork it needed more thought. Cork is, of course, a natural product and has the variability that comes with any such thing. I didn't like the idea of chlorine treatment to kill off the fungi that caused "corking" problems and there was almost no way of guaranteeing purity of source. I think Portugal was still the major world supplier in those days and was under a lot of pressure in supply so standards were hard to maintain. A lot of the spirit manufacturers had been using screwcaps for years and even with the higher alcohol levels had encountered no leaching problems, so it was looking good to replace cork with an inert plastic seal in a metallic screwcap. The argument about aging with access to oxygen didn't hold up as, after all, you had to lay the bottle on it's side to keep the cork from drying out and falling to bits so there wasn't much happening to the wine through the very small surface area of the cork.

A sideline advantage is you also have a closure that you can replace and have another glass tomorrow, which is not something you can do with a ten year old cork!

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Reply by gregt, Mar 31, 2013.

Portugal is still far and away the largest producer - more than 50% of the world supply comes from them.  Spain is slightly more than a quarter and the remaining 20% or so comes from other places around the Mediterranean.

Fox - interestingly, the longer corks are actually better because they have less chance of channels running all the way through them.  There's also an argument that the worm on a corkscrew will go all the way through and knock particles into the wine, so for better bottles, people like longer corks. Personally, I think that's not a problem and I want the worm to go all the way through. If they only knew how many bottles I've opened, or thought I've opened, and lo and behold, there's a tiny little disk of cork stuck way down at the bottom!

But I'm not discounting your cynical take any more than Emark's - I'm certain that there are some people who do exactly as you suggest. OTOH, there are some people who cheap out on the corks and still charge extra for the wine, which seems like a horrible trade off. Although I like the wines, I stopped buying anything from Justin because of that. I once opened a corked bottle. Went downstairs and got another, different vintage, different blend, and same thing. Went for another, and same thing. Three for three, across three different wines and different vintages - Isosceles, Justification, and Syrah.

Here's some info on how corks are graded:

http://www.corkqc.com/visual%20grades.pdf

Then there's an issue with the bottle neck, believe it or not. The Rhone shaped bottles start to flare a little at the neck and if your cork is too long, it doesn't fit as well, so often in those bottles you have shorter corks, even tho the winemakers wouldn't mind using a longer one. 

I think that since 2005 people have stopped using chlorine to clean corks and in fact, any part of the wineries, because chlorine is a part of TCA and adding chlorine just increased the chances of providing precursor molecules for its development.

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Reply by Diego Andrés Díaz, Mar 31, 2013.

Thanks to all of you for your comments. I have learned a lot.  Summarizing, yes, there is a loose relation between the quality of Corks and the quality of the wine, influenced by economic calculations, the winemaker concern for his product, or his dishonesty. 

Because of cork taint and practicality, some winelovers and winemakers have gradualy grow a preference and a love for the screwcaps, but there is a field where the cork still is the king: the wines made to age for decades, even centuries. Vintage port, the great Bordeaux and Bourgogne still use corks. 

Are the screwcaps made some progress among these iconic wines?

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Reply by Michael Bennett, Mar 31, 2013.

We had a policy of re-corking aged library wines after 10 years. The original cork might have survived but many we replaced were getting very delicate and tending to fall apart, notwithstanding our attempts to always buy top of the range and to hell with the price.

Wine companies need to be aware of the public perception of screwcaps as a "cheap" alternative (which of course, they are) replacing 'real' corks. It will take a while for an acceptance that quality of the wine is not affected.

As regards the use of chlorine for sterilising corks, yes we avoided using chlorine for winery cleaning for that very reason, using instead iodophor and even that not internally in tanks, preferring high pressure water or steam..


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