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Stephen Murray, Jr.
July 8, 2017 | Stephen Murray, Jr.

The Cork Debate - Is it becoming a closer call?

Oenophiles have a love/hate relationship with cork. We love the aesthetic of it, the crust that it acquires after a decade or two nestled in the neck of a great bottle of wine, the satisfying pop when it finally leaves the bottle. We love the tradition, spanning centuries. We love the mellow aging that cork provides, just enough porosity to allow minute amounts of oxygen to evolve the wine over many years. And then there's the other side of cork: dried corks that break in half, leaky corks that cause a wine to die in the rack, and worst of all, TCA-tainted corks that leave once-great wines smelling like an old mildewed mop.

Over the years, many experts have urged us to end our dysfunctional relationship with cork, citing both ecological and oenological concerns. Some say cork is too rare, a dwindling commodity from shrinking forests that cannot meet the world's needs. Others say cork is too unpredictable, not to be trusted. Most experts agree that for everyday wines, ones not intended for long aging, cork is an unnecessary luxury. The minimal oxidation that cork affords does not come into pay in a wine with a shelf life of only a few years, so why kill trees and risk tainted bottles unnecessarily? For those wines, the Stelvin® wine preservation system (screw-tops to their friends) ensure consistency of product. While one might lament the loss of the corking ritual, it's hard to deny the convenience and consistency of the Stelvin tops.

On the whole, wine drinkers have come to accept, if not embrace alternative closures. Once relegated to wines sold at filling stations, screw tops can be seen on wine lists at 3-star restaurants. However, wine lovers have drawn the line at bottles they intend to cellar. Oenophiles, and I count myself in this number, just don't trust artificial corks to age their wines properly. A screw top lacks the porosity of cork, so the argument goes, and hence that minimal communication between the wine and the ambient air crucial to aging cannot occur. Besides, after shelling out a substantial chunk of your hard-earned cash and then exercising the discipline not to drink a bottle for a decade or more, one wants a more cathartic release than unscrewing a cap. So, with keeper wines, wine lovers gladly accept the risk of dry, leaky or tainted corks. And curse hell out of Christendom whenever one of their prized bottles proves to have fallen prey to cork's fatal flaws.

A few premier wine makers hope to change all that. In 2008, Laurent Ponsot, the eminence gris of Burgundy and undisputed heavy-weight champion of Clos de la Roche, began bottling all of his wines, even his coveted Clos de la Roche, with artificial corks. His motivation was not cost or ecology, but perfection. M. Ponsot wanted a way to enclose his wines that would allow for the mellow aging of natural cork without any of cork's notorious frailties. After twenty years of experimentation, in laboratories and cellars, Ponsot ended up with the Ardea seal artificial cork.

Unlike the Stelvin system, the Ardea seal works like a regular cork. It extracts with a regular corkscrew, exiting the bottle with a signature cork pop. Although it works like a natural cork, the similarities end there. The polymer "cork" looks like a white capsule, a cork as interpreted by the prop designer for the movie SLEEPER. The hallmark Ponsot coat of arms is stamped on the capsule, just as it had been on Ponsot corks for generations, although it looks a little out of place on the space age capsule.

M. Ponsot has not opted for this new closure for its looks. This move is all about the wine. Ponsot agrees with those who believe that natural cork's porosity is the key to aging great wine. Natural cork, in its ideal form, has just the right amount of porosity to allow the minuscule transfer of oxygen over long periods that makes wines improve with age. The problem, Ponsot tells us, is that cork varies greatly in its porosity. Two bottles from the same case may age drastically differently from one another due to natural variations in the cork. And that's before one gets to the more catastrophic failures of drying, leaking, crumbling and TCA-taint. By using a highly advanced polymer, the Ardea seal achieves the ideal porosity of cork every time, without variation. The result is consistency of product over long aging, without any of the pitfalls of natural cork.

Having recently tasted Ponsot wines that were bottled with the Ardea seal nine years ago, I can confirm that, in my small sampling (I wish I could afford a larger sample, particularly of the legendary Clos de la Roche) the wines performed as I would have expected with natural cork under ideal conditions. They had all the characteristics of well-aged wines. The ritual of opening the bottle was identical to that of regular cork, except that the Ardea seal provides a bulls eye and internal guide to make sure the corkscrew doesn't go in cock-eyed (something that happens with greater frequency the more bottles I open in an evening). Unlike some cheaper artificial corks I have encountered in the past, there was absolutely no taste in the wine to suggest that it had been bottled with a synthetic cork. The polymer Ponsot uses is the same one used for artificial hearts, entirely inert.

I am impressed with Ponsot's effort, and with the Ardea seal wines I have tried thus far. I am curious to see how these closures perform over the really long term. We have less than ten years' experience with Ardea seal, centuries with cork. There is a reason why, even with natural cork's many shortcomings, it has remained the wine closure of choice for centuries. I'm still partial to natural cork. Well-sourced, premium cork, such as that used in Flambeaux wines, has good consistency and a minimal rate of failure. But who knows, a decade or two from now, perhaps a Flambeaux and other premium wine makers may follow M. Ponsot's lead. I know that Flambeaux will only do so if it is proven that, as M. Ponsot asserts, the artificial closure actually results in a better wine.


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