“The rumors of my death” Mark Twain wrote, “are exaggerated.” I wonder if the same is true about wine bottles and the corks that seal them?
Fine wine comes in a bottle and is sealed with a cork – this long been a given of the world of wine, but things are changing very rapidly. I wonder what the Wine Wall at your supermarket will look like in ten or fifteen years? Will there still be bottles and corks? Or is the death of wine tradition over-stated.
Corks seem headed for the endangered species list for all but the most precious age-worthy wines. Non-cork closures including screwcaps were nearly invisible just 10 years ago (with perhaps 1 percent of the bottled wine market), but this is changing quickly. A report in Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly suggests that about 35 percent of wine bottles– over 2.5 billion units — had non-cork closures in 2007, including about 90 percent of New Zealand’s wine production.
Screwcaps have long been associated with inexpensive wine, but this too is changing. The August 2008 issue of Decanter magazine features an article titled “50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps.” Ten wine critics including Steven Spurrier and Linda Murphy recommend wines for summer drinking and comment on both the products and their screw tops. “The screwcap closure is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime,” according to Spurrier (the organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting.
“Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or a cork, I’d choose the screwcap every time,” writes Joanna Simon, The Sunday Times wine writer. It’s a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, especially coming from Decanter. Economics is behind the move away from cork. Screwcaps are not remarkably cheaper than cork, but they avoid the loss of good wine to cork taint, generally estimated to affect about three percent of cork-closed wines. That’s a cost that winemakers would like to avoid. But it can get much worse than three percent in individual cases George Taber wrote about a much worse situation in his great book To Cork or Not to Cork. A shipment of tainted cork almost ruined the David Bruce winery some years ago and destroyed forever the reputation of its Chardonnay wines. It had to rebuild (successfully) as a Pinot Noir maker.
Big Bag, Big Box
Don’t throw away your corkscrews yet – bottle and cork won’t disappear over night. But the screwcap is replacing cork and the familiar glass bottle, well it’s under attack, too. As much as 30 percent of the 20 billion liters of wine sold this year will come in a non-bottle package – a bag-in-box “cask,” TetraPak “juice box” or something else. Economics is driving this change, as well.
Bag-in-box casks are cheap and efficient, and so we have come to expect very inexpesive wines to be sold this way, in 3-liter or 5-liter containers. Think Franzia and Peter Vella. The bag-in-box system is even used in international wine trade, but on a bigger scale. Bulk wine shipments increasingly arrive in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 24,000 liters of wine in a single seamless bladder called a Flexitank. Wow, that’s really bag in box!
But it’s not just the cost of the container itself that is at work here. Bottles are heavy to ship and costly to recycle. Rising transportation costs and increasing concern about carbon footprint are pushing the industry to look very closely at alternative packaging systems.
A French company is leading the way on this front, and I am not sure whether to be surprised or not. France is generally associated with resistance to innovation and change – picture the rebel José Bové torching a McDonalds in protest of its encroachment on French life and cuisine. On the other hand the France is home to many of the most dynamic multinational corporations – including two of the world’s five largest wine companies – and the country has a huge interest in the wine business, given that it is still the largest producer. So perhaps it just makes sense that they are innovators in this field.
What’s French for Entrepreneur?
The producer I’m talking about is Boisset Family Estates, which makes fine wines such as Louis Bernard in France and DeLoach here in the United States. Boisset seems to be pushing the envelope, selling a €150 screwcapped Chambertin as well as affordable TetraPak French Rabbit wines. I wrote about French Rabbit in my earlier post, Red, White and Green All Over.
I think we will be seeing more and more wine in non-traditional packages — screwcaps, casks, plastic bottles and so forth. Cost, quality and environmental concerns are all pointing in the same direction for wines that are sold for everyday consumption. Hmmm. Maybe the days of the wine cork really are numbered. Great — my cork collection may finally be worth something!