Ten Years On: The International Screwcap Initiative

By / Magazine / October 28th, 2014 / 3

This November it will be a decade since the launch of the International Screwcap Initiative. That was the period when the twist top revolution won its stripes, if you will. When the notion of Stelvin closures moved from being vaguely respectable (a still somewhat suspect alternative) to a force to be reckoned with that really has changed the way we bottle wine.

It has me thinking about my own introduction to screwcaps and what’s transpired along the way.

One steamy hot January evening in 1998, I was sitting in what was then the Melbourne Wine Room, a bustling spot, which mid-evening seamlessly shifted from casual resto and beer saloon to wine tasting bar. Even in increasingly wine savvy Melbourne, the room still enjoyed prominence more as Aussie tavern than wine haunt, at least for most of the day. Our hosts suggested we should crack open some older Clare Rieslings and we jumped at the chance.

Out came the bottles, several from the early 1970s. The other common trait they shared? They were all screwcaps. The wines were part of an ongoing test initiated by key Clare Valley Riesling producers in response to an issue they’d been experiencing with poor quality corks — and a resulting incidence of taint that some were estimating to be as high as 10 percent.

If not cautious, we were certainly curious, although for many in the group the mere mention of screwcap conjured up images of Schloss Laderheim or Gallo Hearty Burgundy and the like. But this was a different species and these were vintage wines — and serious ones at that.

I remember as we tasted how pleasantly surprised we were as our suspicions evaporated with the crisp and vibrant character of each and every bottle, evolved and aged for sure, with all that you’d expect and appreciate from a 20-plus-year-old Riesling but with a definitive clarity that was hard to believe — without a whiff of that all too familiar, if even slight, corkiness.

(A couple of years later, those same Clare producers took the bull by the horns and launched pretty well all of their premium Rieslings under Stelvin, and thereby kicked off what’s become in essence a revolution.)

That all seems like ancient history now, especially in a time when the screwcap has become such a major part of wine culture (although some would argue the opposite) that we now think nothing of twisting the top off a bottle. And it seems that much of wine drinking world agrees. In the UK, reports suggest that initial resistance has crumbled, with up to 85 percent of consumers now accepting screwcaps. No doubt much of that can be linked to the English passion for Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, which, as far as I know, is almost entirely under screwcap.

While the French were the first to dabble in artificial enclosures — having developed the technology several decades prior — it was the Aussies, on a small scale, who proved its reliability. Unquestionably it has been the Kiwis who have taken things to the next level — Marlborough in particular.

The other seminal screwcap moment that remains in my mind was during a 2002 visit to Vancouver by Dr John Forrest, from New Zealand’s Forrest Estate, when he poured several of his estate wines from identical batches, side by side, one of each under cork and one under screwcap. The results, especially with the aromatics, were truly convincing.

It was Forrest who, along with Ross Lawson (Lawson’s Dry Hills), John Belsham (Foxes Island) and John Stichbury (Jackson Estate) who led the charge in Marlborough which has resulted in the most revolutionary, worldwide change in wine closure arguably since the advent of cork itself.

Recently I had the chance to ask Dr Forrest what it was that absolutely convinced him that screwcaps were the way to go. Here’s what he had to say:

“I actually didn’t believe it until one day I had Jeff Grosset from Australia over. He brought one of the original Yalumba 34-year-old Rieslings, under screwcap. It was sensational! But the winemaker’s notes said: ‘awful vintage, shit wine, drink quickly.’ There under screwcap, 34 years later, it was still one of the best aged Rieslings that I’ve ever seen. I thought that was the moment, the epiphany for me, I was forever going to be a screwed up kind of guy!”

While John Forrest’s Vancouver visit may not have turned the world upside down right away, it did kindle the flames of a fire that within a few years swept through the market, especially in BC. Maybe it’s part of our ‘frontier’ mentality, or that we’ve always just liked to live a little bit on the edge, but Vancouver consumers seemed to take to Stelvin a whole lot more easily than most — a fact not lost on more tuned in Okanagan producers.

Tinhorn Creek was the first BC (and likely Canadian) winery to mirror Dr Forrest’s idea by packaging side by side bottles of its 2001 Oldfield Collection Merlot under Stelvin and cork.

The choice of the upper tier wines was deliberate, intended to counter the notion that screwcaps were suited only to budget wines, and also an echo of the Clare Valley move to Stelvin on premium wines. The feedback was so positive that it wasn’t long before the winery switched over its entire production.

At the time, then winemaker and now Tinhorn CEO Sandra Oldfield was asked about the “romance” of pulling a cork. Without missing a beat, she replied: “I’ve always believed that if you need a cork for romance, you’re sitting at the table with the wrong man.”

Prior to the Clare Valley producer trials, it was Yalumba who first seriously explored screwcaps, in 1964. There followed an on-again-off-again love affair which waxed and waned in concert with the consumers’ ardour, or lack thereof, which continued past the millennium.

In Burgundy, Domaine Laroche bucked the trend by launching its first wines under Stelvin, which was, after all, made by a French company (and division of Alcan).

Following the success enjoyed — including, finally, market acceptance — by the Clare group and especially by Marlborough’s Screwcap Initiative, other serious players around the world began to sit up and take note, especially when the Kiwis morphed their organisation into one of more global scope at the 2004 International Screwcap Symposium, held at Blenheim, in Marlborough.

The International Screwcap Initiative brought together all the pioneers to that date, and also made available their findings to drive and coordinate a global initiative that would work to improve the public’s perception of screwcaps. The association enjoyed multi-national support on its executive from the likes of John Belsham, Jeffrey Grosset and Michel Laroche.

What the initiative achieved was to provide the building blocks to convey the message to a wider wine world, and to consumers at large, that the screwcap was more than a purely regional curiosity confined to the Antipodes or New World but a trend which merited serious consideration on any number of levels — and in most if not all wine regions.

Aside from the challenge of corked wines, other factors have been driving acceptance of screwcap closures. Younger generations of wine drinkers see them as convenient and portable, which very much plays into the notion that wine is no longer confined to a formal dining setting. Then there’s the much talked about but hard-to-pin-down “trunk-aged” statistic: that the average bottle of wine is consumed within, say, three hours of purchase.

Then there’s the reality that most wine drinkers today, especially urban dwellers, don’t have the space to cellar wines at home. That all begs the question, which it seems has been already answered: Is it really worth putting a decent cork in a bottle that’s never going to see a wine rack, let alone a cellar?

Even before the arrival of the Screwcap Initiative, in 2002 Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm held a mock funeral at Grand Central Station for “Monsieur Bouchon,” complete with coffin and mourners on their way to an all-black themed dinner to mark the cork’s demise, and a wide ranging and witty eulogy delivered by Jancis Robinson.

Grahm was one of the first screwcap trailblazers, moving his flagship Rhône Ranger le Cigare Volant to the closure for the 2000 vintage.

In a recent YouTube clip, Grahm says although it’s still early days, the same wine sealed in cork rather than screwcap will not last as long. But, he adds, screwcaps also “can be very backward when they’re young — and that’s the downside.” Grahm also suggests we’ve barely scraped the surface as far as developing permeable screwcaps that can be adjusted according to need.

Bonny Doon and Grahm, however, proved to be somewhat the exception, as the Golden State has been slow to make the switch. If Napa — generally inclined to be just a tad image conscious — feels the cork equates to Bordeaux, then perhaps that explains in part why both it and California at large has been more resistant.

No doubt the debate over the merits of screwcap versus cork will continue to rage, although my hunch is it will be with a whole lot less fervour, as we learn more and more that tasting fault free trumps image and “romance” every time.

Consider how Jancis Robinson closed her eulogy to “Pierre Bouchon”:

“But we will not mourn the social posturing you have — perhaps unwittingly — given rise to over the past centuries. The sniffing of the cork. How ridiculous is that when the most hideously tainted wines can be topped by perfectly sweet-smelling corks, and the most divine wines emerge from under a stink-bomb of a cork.”


Tim Pawsey (aka The Hired Belly) continues to document the dynamic evolution of the Vancouver and BC food scene both on line and in print, as he has for over 30 years, for respected outlets such as the Vancouver Courier, North Shore News and Where Vancouver magazine. Follow him at hiredbelly.com and facebook.com/TheHiredBelly.

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