Thanks to comprehensive note-taking, one of the things I’m able to do is note trends in my personal wine experience. None of which anyone else should care about, except for one:
I calculated the percentage of corked wines I experienced over the past year. As expected, it went down, and the current identified taint rate (I’m far from the most sensitive TCA-detector) is about 2.5% or so. That’s still too high, but much better than the 7-9%, even occasionally pushing 10%, failure rate I regularly experienced a half-dozen years ago.
Or is it? Those old numbers were generated in the near-complete absence of screwcaps and the only anecdotal presence of other alternative closures. So that, too, needs to be factored into the new percentage. Subtracting screwcaps, glass closures, both kinds of synthetic corks, and crown caps (I had several this year, on a bottle of California sparkling wine and some Italian sparklers as well), the number goes up. And it goes up again when I eliminate barrel samples, which obviously can’t show cork effects.
So what’s the real number? The number, it must be remembered, that comes after the cork industry’s much-heralded (unfortunately, mostly by themselves and their bought-off journalistic shills) attempts to, at long last, address their taint problems with technological solutions?
It's better than one might expect: just a shade over 4%. Much better than it used to be, for sure, but still not good enough. I’m not yet at the point where I can express even cautious optimism, given the cork industry’s decades of lying and obfuscation on this issue, but we’ll see what the new year brings. At least the numbers are headed in the right direction, and obviously it will take their efforts a while to catch up to the older vintages in everyone’s cellars.
Meanwhile, two related numbers seem worth considering. The oft-discussed reduction issue with screwcaps did occasionally rear its head this year, but I still don’t see the problems that others do, which makes me wonder if I’m simply insensitive to the phenomenon. I identified four reduced wines this year, for a total reduction rate of .35%, but one of those was (somewhat surprisingly) under synthetic cork – the very last closure that should be able to preserve reductive characteristics – rather than screwcap. Restricting the data to screwcapped wines alone, the reduction rate – and this includes some aged wines, which are what those beating the anti-screwcap drum seem to fear most – was 1.6%. Not very high, and certainly far below the percentage of wines tainted by natural cork, but still not ideal. As I’ve said before, more research is obviously needed, but remember that the vast majority of the stories on this issue are being generated by a single journalist…which doesn’t make him wrong, but should at least lead to some healthy suspicion.
The most worrisome number is the physical failure rate for extruded synthetic corks (for those confused by the terminology, those are the spongy ones that look like a real cork, not the stiff plugs of multicolored plastic that strip the Teflon off corkscrews and are often impossible to remove). It’s important to note, however, that my number will be a bit of an outlier, as this past year included a number of wines that I inadvertently aged without realizing that they were sealed with artificial corks. The ability of synthetics to seal bottles for more than a few years has long been doubted, even by the people who invented them, and my experiences bear this out: the failure rate for extruded synthetic corks was a rather shocking 9.7%, and that’s only wines that were completely or very nearly dead, not those that I thought were inferior to their expected states.
In sum, my previous recommendations (not that anyone necessarily cares what I think) stand: there’s no reason for wines made for youthful consumption to be under natural cork. Synthetic corks must not be used for wines that have any aging ability at all. As for the longer agers and which closures are best, the questions remain: 1) how much oxygen ingress, if any (and from where?), is necessary for wine to age, and 2) what adjustments to wine chemistry, if any, are necessary to guarantee optimum performance for different types of wine under each closure? We need to answer the former first, however.