Winemakers have plenty of information about closures, but when balancing consumer preferences and the performance of the product the decision-making process can get complicated. Nathan Gogoll reports.
WINEMAKERS WANT the closure in their bottle of wine to preserve the quality of the product, so they can send their wine out to the market confident it will meet expectations. And there’s plenty of information available to them to help decide.
However, at some point the wine does need to be bottled and the winemaker will have to make the most informed decision possible, in order to confidently send it along the bottling line. At this point the winemaker should be confident the closure chosen will deliver the results that best match the wine it will keep within the bottle.
But, what if there’s another factor?
Well it turns out there is.
Will the market (distributors, retailers, restaurants and consumers) accept the closure?
The winemaker will probably spend more time agonising over closures than everybody at the other end of the supply chain combined, yet preferences of the customer can be just as important as any other factor, sometimes more.Jason Baker, Red + White group state manager (Red + White is a wine distribution business with more than 30 years of experience), said distributors actively persuade wineries to supply wine with specific closures.
“The majority of our Australian Wineries are now using Stelvin and we encourage this,” Baker said. (Note, Baker’s use of the brand name Stelvin refers more broadly to all screwcaps – the same way as Band-Aid is used for adhesive bandages.)
“The premium red category has been the last still wine category to adopt Stelvin. We do not push as hard in this area, however there has been a steady transition over the last couple of years.”
Lak Quach, one of the Cellarhand winebuyers (Cellarhand is a wine distribution and marketing company operating primarily in Victoria and New South Wales), agreed.
“Absolutely, there is a huge preference on-premise for screwcap,” said Quach.
In fact, he revealed the pull is so strong that Cellarhand even tries to convince its import partners to bottle with screwcaps because their Australian customers want it and expect it.
“We have even seen some bottle under screwcap for the first time because of this,” said Quach.
The distributors are working with the winemakers because of the preferences in the wine trade.
“Restaurants, on the whole, they prefer screwcap. I’ve worked on-premise and I know at the premium ended there’s a big desire for consistency. The issue with cork is not so much the oxidation or TCA, but consistency and quality,” said Qauch.
“There are still winemakers who use cork and we completely understand it, they philosophically believe cork is better for their wines.”
WHEN CORK IS STILL NUMBER ONE
Dan Standish, winemaker at his own Standish Wine Company in the Barossa, is an example of a winemaker with this mindset. He said he preference for cork closures trace back to his own discovery of the world of premium wine.
“I guess as a young adult tasting and learning the about fine wines and regions of the world left an indelible imprint that all the great wines are sealed with a great cork,” said Standish.
“There is also a bit of the romantic in me that says a part of drinking a great bottle of wine is the whole theatre of the bottle opening with the unmistakable sound of a squeaky cork and pop.
“As far as bottling my own wines under cork I have never entertained using anything else.”
Standish believes natural corks suits his business better, as well his wines.
“From a holistic point of view it makes sense. We farm our grapes organically, add nothing to the grapes to make our wines, utilising native yeasts and natural bacteria,” he said.
“It follows logically that I would use a natural product like cork bark to seal the wine into bottle as opposed to a highly refined metal cap with a plastic liner in contact with the wine.”
Standish has found a cork supplier he is confident in and directs all his business to them.
“We purchase 100% of our corks from CSA – Cork Supply Australia. The quality of product is fantastic.”
Some readers may need to look at the next quote a couple of times before it sinks in.
“For $3 a cork you can buy a guaranteed TCA taint free natural cork,” said Standish.
“Not only does this eliminate TCA contaminated corks but also any corks showing woody, mushroomy, vegetal and other off-flavours or aromas and taints are ejected.”
And Standish has an interesting take on the rise of screwcaps in Australia being good for those who still choose cork.
“With many Australian producers moving to screwcaps in recent years, as well as technological advances, the quality of cork available has increased drastically,” he said.
Brett Jantzen, Cork Supply Group’s business development and marketing manager, reinforced this message.
“For domestic wines we have seen a moderate trend towards natural corks, and most are seeking the higher grades,” Jantzen said.
The Cork Supply Group has also developed a process that individually inspects each natural cork by a trained sensory panel. This will be good news for at least one winemaker, who has been rumoured to personally assess every cork before it is used to seal up a flagship $165 bottle of Shiraz.
Andrew Quin, the Hentley Farm winemaker, said there was actually some truth to this rumour.
“Although I didn’t do it personally last year, I left it to the team at CSA to do it for us,” said Quin. “I am hoping to find time to do it again this year. It is certainly an interesting process to go through.”
There might be some time-saving news headed Quin’s way soon.
“In the near future we will launch our new automated process where every natural cork has been automatically 100% inspected,” said Jantzen.
DIFFERENT HORSES FOR DIFFERENT COURSES
“The market has changed in recent years, where wineries are looking more for a closure that suits a particular wine style, destination market, or price point. This is different to the past where we found that many would only use one closure for all off their wines irrespective of these important factors,” said Jantzen.
“With smaller production runs it is becoming somewhat easier to use a particular closure for an individual brand or SKU, while respecting the impact of cost to change closure for specific a bottling run.”
As the Australian wine industry is so dependent on exports, Jantzen said the Cork Supply Group’s global network is able to assist with information and guidance for different closure preferences for various markets. For example, Cork Supply USA provides up-to-date market research on consumer preferences in the USA.
“In the USA consumers prefer cork, and we can recommend the right cork type on quality and price to our customers,” said Jantzen.
The wine world is still expanding for closure suppliers.
“Our business also has extensive experience with China and has recently opened Cork Supply China in Tianjin. Our global team travels to China frequently and we have a solid understanding of the market,” said Jantzen.
“On my visits this year I found that the market looking for more education on wine closures. Consumers are strongly influenced by the French cultural preference for natural cork, but wines are found with a range of inserted closures, from natural corks to technical corks.”
“We understand that much of our industry now export their wines under up to three different closures, predominantly determined by the price point of the finished product,” said Jantzen.
“We find that natural corks are often used in conjunction with screwcaps across a winery’s range. With screwcaps we believe there should be more discussion on oxygen impact. Saran/tin liners are the standard for screwcaps in Australia, while in many international markets it the saranex mostly used. Saranex liners allow for more oxygen to transfer to the wine, and they cost less than saran/tin liners. The conversation is then around which wines respond better to some more oxygen post bottling.”
Natural corks were more likely to be chosen for the premiums; the composite/technical corks were most clearly selected for mid-range wines; and while screwcaps were the dominant choice across all price points, they were almost universally identified for entry-level wines.
“We often ask questions about the product – price point, export market, on/off premise. These questions mean we can develop the package with our customer so the label and closure work together in price and positioning to meet the brief,” he said.
“In the end, we find there’s a wide choice for winemakers and it is critical to understand the market in which the wines are intended.”
THE OPTIONS FOR SPARKLING WINE
Another area to consider is sparkling wine, where a range of different options are available to handle the pressure inside the bottle.
The main options include natural cork; agglomerate; micro agglomerate; and crown seal. As with other closures, there are a range of suppliers and price points for winemakers to choose from.
Robert Heywood, the chief winemaker at Taltarni Vineyards in Victoria’s Pyrenees wine region, said he uses a variety of cork types.
“It’s reliant on a lot of factors, most importantly is quality and cleanliness, time expected on cork, pressure and gas retention and finally wine price point,” said Heywood.
With sparkling wine, you would be tempted to think there’s a preference for a traditional way of opening the bottle. But not for Taltarni.
“It’s more about the quality of the wine that comes out of bottle that determines the closure type,” said Heywood. “I really can’t emphasize enough the effect on good sparkling wine that time on cork has, it’s a massive part of the quality of the finished wine after disgorgement.”
RELATIONSHIPS AND UNDERSTANDING
Taltarni has never used any ‘alternative’ closure options for its sparkling wines and works with a couple of key suppliers who Heywood can rely on for “confidence in the effect the cork will have on the finished wine.
Heywood said the suppliers keep him up-to-date with their latest releases and the work they are doing to overcome taint issues. “They are generally pretty forthcoming with information regarding their own products. For me, it’s more about proof and a guarantee that it won’t and isn’t occurring in the trade.
“The cork needs to add to the finished product not detract from it.”
This sentiment rings true no matter what the wine style or closure selection. But when it comes to sparkling wines, even the distributors admit there’s a consumer expectation of a traditional closure.
“We had a meeting with a sparkling producer the other day that had decided to package under crown seal,” said Jason Baker. “It was generally agreed that consumers have not adopted to sparkling wines under crown seals and cork was still a preference.”
Yet, in other areas Baker is still keen to see change. He’s even working to convince Old World wineries to adopt to the New World expectations, just as Quach has at Cellarhand.