Stelvin development – a short history

How a French invention took over Australian wine

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky

Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky

Stelvin bottle closures
Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham

 

It is reasonable to assume that the Stelvin®, the sophisticated screwcap that has virtually replaced corks as closures for bottles, is Australian.

The French invented the Stelvin®. However, given the percentage of bottles Stelvin® sealed by Australian winegrowers and the fact that the French industry has not really embraced the closure, the basic assumption would seem reasonable.

Enlightened management of the big ACI company through their Australian Glass Manufacturers arranged to make the Stelvin® under licence.

Perhaps the genius stroke was co-opting the head winemakers of our five biggest wine companies to participate in the tastings that were designed around the same wines sealed with Stelvin®s and conventional corks. Further, to ensure truly independent comparisons the company cleverly had the Dean of Oenology of the time, Dr Rankine, design the experiment.

Possibly the actual wines were supplied by the winemakers’ own companies, thereby reducing another possible variable. Further, the company arranged various wadding compositions were part of the trial, while a layer of tin (since replaced by aluminium) imbedded in between those layers provided the ultimate oxygen barrier.

Actually, the French-recommended wad was not assumed to be the best one. I remember the wads were made of three different plastics, the external one in contact with the wine being the critical one and importantly – food grade.

Sensibly, the comparison trials – the same wines sealed with Stelvin®s and with corks – were staged over about five years. At regular intervals of several months, the winemakers gathered to taste/compare the wines under the two types of closures and I was privileged to participate, being wine writer of The Australian Financial Review at the time.

Wines sealed under variously composed wads inside the Stelvin®, were comparatively tasted against the same wines sealed with conventional corks. All that we saw was a row of glasses in front of each winemaker: the bottles they came from was not revealed to us till the exercise was finished.

It seems incredulous now, but at 18 months, it was possible to select the white wines in the glasses from Stelvin® closed bottles from five metres away! The Stelvin® sealed wines had obviously retained their original colour better that the same wines sealed under conventional corks. The comparison was obvious if not compelling.

The participating winemakers certainly were enthused and this particular exercise undoubtedly hastened Australian dominance of the use of the Stelvin® screwcap closure. However, there remained the ‘aging of dry red wines’ for which time was the basic need, especially as there was a prevailing belief 45 years ago that corks allowed dry red wines to breathe (and therefore age gracefully) in bottled wines. Time was the need.

The actual trial was deficient in a couple of areas. The sealed wines were stored in a special storeroom by ACI between and during the lengthy comparative tastings. In commercial trade wines are not stored that way: they are subjected to varying temperatures, including considerably elevated ones during transportation to markets, dominantly Sydney, in Australia. Fluctuating temperature is the most severe test for any type of bottle closure.

Another unforseen problem developed when sealed bottles were transported by road (as is the entrenched Australian practice). The weight of pallets of bottles on top of other pallets of bottles – sealed with Stelvin®s, caused the sealing to fail, the actual point of the seal was the flat top of the bottle impressed into the wad.

Winegrowers attempted to overcome the jeopardy by requiring that their pallets of Stelvin® sealed bottles be ‘top loaded’ thereby avoiding the crushing problem. However, in those early days, much road freight was sub-contracted and unbeknown to the consignor, loads were re-loaded onto road industry ‘cowboys’ who carried for lower fees, and of course, top loaded pallets became bottom loaded.

This point of failure has since been neatly and cleverly addressed. The wad of the Stelvin® now curls downward at the edge following the external glass of the bottle mouth, thereby greatly increasing the sealing area and changing it into two planes, not just one.

 

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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December 06th, 2010
 
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