Bottled reds – cork vs Stelvin?

A dilemma of perceptions....

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Wine bottles in a South Australian cellar

Wine bottles in a South Australian cellar [©Winepros/VisitVineyards.com]

Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky
Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham

 

It had been an entrenched belief that dry red wines need an infinitesimal amount of oxygen to age properly when in bottle. It seemed to be assumed that corks allowed some ingress of air due to their particular natural structure, being the bark of oak trees grown mostly in Portugal.

Then it was asserted that air does not gain ingress through the cork, but can between the cork and the internal glass surface of the bottle neck, even though considerable compression is applied to corks by corking machines, immediately prior to insertion into bottles.

This belief seems to have been dispelled and we have returned to believing corks are impervious (while admitting that, being pieces of tree bark, their physical characteristics can vary considerably).

Further, it has been commonly believed among Australian winemakers that we are not always supplied the best quality corks, while mentioning the Grand Crus of Bordeaux – enviously. Maybe this last aspect served as a fillip to Australia’s ready acceptance of the Stelvin screwcap, leading quickly to world leadership.

All during development of Australia’s leading position with Stelvins, there has been entrenched pondering that dry red wines do not age when sealed with the sophisticated screwcap. The time needed to prove or disprove that point has engendered uncertainty among practising winegrowers that has been reasonable, surely.

In a back-handed way, it has been enthusiastically asserted that the Stelvin is ideal for dry white wines for the precise reason that air with its oxygen is not required for their ageing. Indeed, it has been strongly believed that any oxygen at all diminishes the desirable varietal character of bottled dry white wines.

Now researchers have established that dry red wines do not need oxygen as part of desirable ageing.

So we should see increasing quantities of dry red wines sealed with the Stelvin: that seems logical, but Australian winegrowers now have a marketing problem and it is rather unique. For most export markets, screwcapped wines are perceived to be cheap, and extraordinarily, this pertains to the important American market.

Rather like that most important issue, global warming, it is not always wise to be the lonely market leader. Of course it works if you are considered to be innovators, like the Finns with their mobile phones, but Australian wines no longer carry that cachet: rather they are considered to be the ‘discount wines’ that all taste the same. Displaying a screwcap just reinforces that concept in the minds of ‘the unenlightened’.

Being practical, winegrowers cannot seal part of their production with Stelvins and the balance with corks, because, in practice, at the time of bottling, they have no idea what percentage will be exported.

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

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