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SPECIAL REPORT: Wine closures

The type of closure selected for wine is one of the most contentious packaging issues. Junior MW at Coe Vintners reports on the choices available and some of the points producers need to consider when making that important decision

The way wine is packaged and presented creates a sense of expectation. When done correctly it helps producers convey a sense of identity, provoke emotion and ultimately create a connection between the consumer and the brand. The quality of the product is the overriding factor but packaging can play an important role in determining whether or not the bottle will be purchased in the first place and if there will be a repeat purchase.

When we shop for bread, milk or tea we never question product integrity. It is simply assumed that the product will be fit for purpose. Wine is different...oxidation, reduction, cork taint and other faults can play a part in rendering what was a sound offering before bottling into a disappointment as it reaches our glass.  The type of closure is one of the most contentious packaging issues.  Producers will make their decision based on past experiences, present philosophy as well as technical issues, costs, practicalities and market expectations.

Much has been written about closure type in the past two decades. The industry has evolved and  we have thankfully seen significant progress on technical issues concerning closure types. The cork industry alone has invested circa 400 million euros in research and development in the last decade according to Carlos de Jesus, marketing director for cork manufacturer Amorim. The debate about which closure is best or what is right or wrong should cease. The battle is over. The discussion nowadays should be about which type of closure is right for each specific style of wine and each specific channel of distribution.    

When considering the right type of closure for a channel such as the on-trade, a producer must take into account the style of wine, level of quality and expectation attached to the product. The attitude of the gate keeper and the attitude of the guest is vital. Venues are not equal, therefore different types of outlets will have specific requirements and this must be taken into account.

Certain styles of wine are intrinsically linked to certain types of closures. It is rare to find a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in any closure other than screwcap. By contrast cork is the closure of choice for most premium old world red wines destined for long term ageing. 

Joao Pires, a Master Sommelier with 25 years experience in the on-trade and with 17 Michelin stars on his CV is clear about his preference saying: “I have no problem whatsoever with any type of alternative closure, although I tend to prefer cork.” He believes that there would be difficulties selling top end Bordeaux under screwcap.

There is certainly a level of expectation attached to certain styles. Guilherme Correa, one of best sommeliers in South America working for Decanter, one of Brazil's top distributors, was forced to delist an ultra premium wine because customers simply did not accept a Grand Cru from a notorious Burgundy producer under screwcap.

Carlos de Jesus believes cork adds value to the wine and notes that of the top 100 brands in the US the ones closed with cork sell on average for US$1.10 more per bottle than wines with alternative closures.     

The attitude of the customer who is ultimately paying for the wine is vital. According to Guilherme Correa it can vary by age group with the older generation being more traditional and opting for cork. Harley Carbery, director of wine, responsible for 150,000 bottles and nine sommeliers at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, has observed over the years that Europeans are opposed to anything other than cork, whereas other customers from other parts of the world are fairly indifferent to the type of closure.  

Before reaching the customer, it is important to overcome any reservation imposed by the gate keeper. Peter McCombie MW, consultant to several high-profile on trade venues in the UK, is open minded and fairly relaxed about the type of closure used as long as it does the job properly.  Being a New Zealander, Peter is enthusiastic about screwcap and a fan of DIAM, but has reservations about cork due to the unacceptable failure rate and is not keen on synthetics. He is not alone. Many of the sommeliers surveyed do not like plastic corks. The difficulty in opening and re-sealing the bottle, as well as environmental concerns were given amongst their reasons. Harley Carbery says: "I have broken too many bottles removing them to think they are a good idea."

It is important to consider the type of venue. Screwcap seems to be the closure of choice for venues with fast turnover, especially for wines at the entry level, banqueting wines and also aromatic and semi-aromatic style of wines. One of Coe Vintners’ loyal customers, Manchester United Football Club, has a significant proportion of the wines sold in the ground closed under screwcap making it quick and easy to serve during match days. Joao Pires has observed that some guests come to expect even classics like Chablis and Sancerre to be under screwcap at the lower price points. By contrast, there are guests who enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but refrain from ordering because they believe that screwcaps  are less eco-friendly than corks.

Phil Crozier, director of wine at Gaucho Grill restaurants, is one of the rare on-trade buyers who has the luxury of buying wines for ageing, most of which are premium and under cork. “I love the idea of opening a wine at the table with a bottle opener”. Despite being curious about how premium Argentinean wines would evolve under screwcap he thinks that the majority of British consumers still perceive that screw cap equates to a low-priced bottle of wine.  This view is also shared by some producers such as Lucila Pescarmona of Argentina’s Bodega Lagarde. 

Aside from the main closures there are alternatives. Vino-lok glass closure, often encountered in premium Austrian or German bottles, is a hit with Peter McCombie MW, as is Procork, although he has rarely encountered it. Carbery is in favour of all closures aside from synthetic. Joao Pires has a similar opinion, although he is less enthusiastic about Zork. He says: “It is a bit weird. The best way to describe it is like a motorcyclist with a knight helmet.” Guillherme Correa is not adverse to Zork and says that alternative closures in a less mature market, such as Brazil, are often a topic of conversation and can be seen as part of the attraction. “Customers sometimes buy certain wines to show friends these new types of closure,” he says.

Phil Crozier thinks crown caps are a good idea. Peter McCombie MW also praises the closure for technical reasons but both are worried about image problems.  There are also closures of the future and Harley Carbery believes that the ideal closure for wines has not been discovered yet. There are several developments in this area that have not yet been seen in the market. One example is Helix, a cork closure that uses a special glass bottle with internal threaded neck and does not require corkscrew.

It is fair to say that most closure types have demonstrated significant technical improvement over the last decade. In some cases, it is the producers that have failed to adapt winemaking techniques and quality control to new closure types.  It was not uncommon to come across reduction issues on bottles of wine sealed with screwcap a decade ago due to lack of understanding and failure to adapt winemaking techniques to the new closure type. This has improved, however it still exists and does not apply exclusively to screwcap. Guilherme Correa has had to send a shipment of Brunello Riserva closed under Procork back to the supplier due to reduction. 

Adapting closure type depending on the style of wine is important and can have a marked impact on quality as well as style.  Martin Tesch from Weingut Tesch, a producer of superb quality dry Riesling from the Nahe, has decreased sulphite levels by 30% since switching to Stelvin Lux, a premium version of screwcap. He said “winemaking has to be adapted and this process takes several years.”

At a tasting during the International Sparkling Wine Symposium 2013, a comparison between screwcap with different degrees of permeability revealed a marked difference between less permeable Saranex disk displaying a wine that was leaner and tighter versus exactly the same wine under a more permeable injected polyethylene disk which rendered a wine that was softer with a creamier texture. This type of attention to detail can have a significant impact on the final product and should certainly be on the forefront of the producers’ mind in the future.

Closure choice is a contentious issue and no longer a case of cork versus screwcap. The on-trade is varied and complex. There are different segments and each sector has different requirements depending on type of outlet, style of wine, quality level, price points, practicalities, attitude of the gate keeper as well as the attitude of the customer.  One approach fits all is no longer the most practical or smart way of deciding closure type. Intelligent producers must communicate more effectively with their distributors to enhance understanding of specific areas of the on trade and strike a balance between market needs and practical as well as technical requirements. Creating a long lasting relationship with the customer should be the ultimate objective of every producer and packaging plays an import role in this quest.

Dirceu Vianna Jr MW (known to everyone as ‘Junior’) is originally from Brazil, where he studied Forest Engineering and Law, but moved to London in 1989, joining the wine trade in 1990. In 2008, he became the first South American male Master of Wine and received the Viña Errazuriz Award for excellence in the Business of Wine. Junior is currently wine director for the Coe Group of companies. He is also a wine educator, technical consultant, a freelance writer and has been a judge in many international wine competitions. He has been a speaker in several wine international events and has made appearances in South American radio and television.

Images courtesy of Amorim


9 March 2014 - Dirceu Vianna Junior MW Coe Vintners, Wine Director