One story that has never been told: Feuillat and the Screwcap

One of the most communicated proclamations from cork advocates is that cork is the only closure that effectively ages a wine due to an ‘ideal’ oxygen ingression. What they don’t promulgate is that assuredly, every single cork produced is different, and as such will allow differing rates of permeability.

This is why (casting aside but not marginalising the prolific issue of taint), so many bottles of the same wine taste differently from a development point of view when sealed under a cork closure. For example, if you open several bottles of the same cork-closed wine some will be what you perceive to be O.K, while some will seem developed and past their best, some will be tainted, and some will be reductive (the latter characteristic is evident in many tight cork-sealed wines). Ultimately you will find distinct differences, and that is due to the effect the cork has on that particular bottle of wine. For the sake of open-mindedness and enlightenment, I encourage you to test this multiple bottle evaluation for yourself if you ever have the chance.

Jeffery Grosset, the eponymous Australian wine producer explains that every wine under screwcap ages “exactly as it would under the very best cork, but with no cork taint.” This includes extending the life-span of cheaper wines that would have once deteriorated dramatically within a year or so, as well as flagship and second-tier wines.

“Screwcap ages [wine] exactly as it would under the very best cork, but with no cork taint.”

The screwcap, or Stelcap-Vin as it was christened, was engineered by French company La Bouchage Mecanique, with the driving initiative of Australian winery Yalumba, in 1959. Yes, that long ago! What’s more, most consumers are startled to find out the Stelcap-Vin or ‘Stelvin’ originated in Burgundy, where as we all know the use of cork is overwhelmingly ubiquitous. A primitive form of screwcap was in fact first used as a closure for whisky as far back as 1856, though what is the equivalent of the neutral disc on our modern screwcap was initially cork. Further developments in the 19th century included a patented zinc screwcap, however the corrosive nature of wine with this type of metal would always be an issue with the medium but not the concept of this early day screwcap.

Little known history aside, it was a French company that created a breakthrough alternative to the Portuguese cork closure over 50 years ago – yet there still exists absolute antipathy toward its use by inhabitant vignerons and traditionalist proponents of wine-consuming society.

Boisset’s Gregory Patriat

Gleefully there have emerged exceptions to the cork oligarchy. Jean-Claude Boisset is the biggest land-holding wine company in France and the fourth largest French producer by volume. In 2003 it began bottling a few of its top-end wines, and to much provocation bottled half of its 2005 Le Chambertin Grand Cru production into Stelvin, primarily for the UK market. Demand for the screwcapped version was such that it was literally oversold.

The story of how Boisset’s use of screwcap came to be is an encouraging one, and it has lead to other high-end producers to follow suit (more on this below). It is one that until now, is little known. It deserves to be told.

After being approached by Canadian-born, London-raised David Gleave MW in late 2002, Boisset’s winemaker Gregory Patriat (left) agreed to contemplate the use of screwcap for the Boisset’s wines exported to the United Kingdom. Gleave owns and operates one of the most successful and rapidly growing wine distribution businesses in the country. He knew Patriat’s wines were good, though he was also frustrated at the inconsistencies and taint that cork caused to wines in his portfolio. Assessing Patriat’s forward thinking character, Gleave audaciously suggested that Boisset bottle under screwcap for wines that he was to import. This was no meagre request, for it involved not just Boisset’s entry-level wines, but Gleave wanted to see his Grand Cru Burgundies under screwcap also. The investment in changing from one closure to another is not insignificant – it requires a new bottling line (or a mobile bottling plant to hire), as well as new dry goods (the bottles and closures themselves). In a wine-growing region marred by conservatism and traditionalism, Gleave was joyous that Patriat agreed to consider the radical change.

Embarking on a rigorous journey of research into closures, Patriat set about exploring the embarrassingly unknown screwcap in its birth-nation. For Patriat, the ability for the wine to age would be the most important make-or-break, particularly because the tier of wine Gleave requested necessitated an extensive cellaring period. Fortuitously he chanced upon support, or at least what promised to be an independent evaluation between closures on home turf, in the guise of Professor Michel Feuillat, director of the Wine Research Institute at the University of Burgundy in Dijon.

November 2003 should have been a defining moment in Old World wine history… Feuillat had invited the entirety of Burgundy’s winemakers to attend a tasting where he would present a lifetime of work – divulging information that would be revolutionary for the old world. To be exhibited were two separate Burgundian wines – a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1966, and a Mercurey 1964.

Patriat was a skeptic but what he found at the tasting changed his view on closures forever. The wines, approaching 40 years old, were bottled under both screwcap and cork. These were the exact same wines, bottled at the exact same time, cellared side-by-side. Reliving this epiphanal moment, Patriat exclaims there was no comparative. “The Nuits-Saint-Georges and Mercurey under cork were tired, and lacking fruit,” he affirms, “while these same wines sealed under screwcap were the complete antithesis, bright and full of life.” The wines under screw cap had aged gracefully – both wines still exhibited fruit and structure confirming almost 40 years of dependable ageing.

The late Professor Michel Feuillat (right)

Sadly, two things happened. Firstly the attendance was seriously lacking in numbers meaning only a handful of winemakers experienced the remarkable experiment. Secondly, Feuillat passed away in 2008 without ever being able to publish this part of his research. Information on him and his research are scarce, though his remarkable work on the role of yeasts in winemaking and extensive research into aromatic compounds found in wine are well known and cited.

Despite these woes, based on the tasting Patriat immediately afterward made the bold decision to be a black sheep in Burgundy. With non-parochialism he convinced his partners and superiors to allow their Burgundian reds destined for the UK to be sealed with screwcap. The business of a global wine exporter however has meant that it has become too difficult to bottle wines for just one market under screwcap, when faced with conservative, cork-entrenched markets like France, the USA and China. All of the UK’s Bourgogne level wines, and their Puligny  from Boisset are still bottled under screwcap, but unfortunately the market uptake in the UK of the most high-end Burgundies produced by Boisset is not enough to justify a separate bottling run. 

This move however was symbolic for other producers, who have diverted to or are at least now experimenting with the alternative closure, combining an open-mind and the strength to break the orthodoxy that is cork. Examples demonstrate this is no trivial minority, nor confined to Burgundy, although this is where it carries potency. While there are an increasing number of producers who bottle their entry-level wines under screwcap (examples can be found in Chablis, Sancerre, and the Languedoc), comparatively few bottle their mid-tier and flagship wines under screwcap. In my humble opinion and in the sake of ‘greenness’, (see this post) there would be far less spoilage and wastage of top wines if they were not bottled under cork. Domaine Laroche, a major family-wine company based in Chablis have taken the bold leap and have bottled all their fine white wines including Grand Cru for certain markets under screwcap since 2001 – in fact they were the first Burgundian producer to do so. It is welcome to hear technical director Grégory Viennois exclaim that screwcaps have given the domaine consistency, and a better seal, meaning they can use less SO2 across all their wines – as well as the absence of wastage due to cork taint. Chateau Margaux have also begun trialing screwcap, albeit with their second wines, Pavillon Rouge and Pavillon Blanc.

Some Italian produces have defied conservatism too, several as much as 20 years ago. Due to strict Italian laws regarding product packaging, switching to screwcap meant forfeiting the lucrative higher-tier Classico designation for a lesser designation. Inherently Classico is a word that equates to sales, so to do this was a very momentous yet parlous action. Allegrini, Isole e Olena and Pieropan among others have proven that the screwcap, and by consequence even having to adopt a less-profitable classification, will not deter the market from realising wine quality, consistency and ageability. Some of these wines outstripped Classico designated wine in sales. Then a long-awaited decree amendment occurred in 2012 which saw authorities allow some wines that are of DOCG status to be sealed under screwcap. While this exists at national level, discretion remains with local consorzi to initiate this in each wine region. Frustratingly and quite bizarrely, wines that name a vineyard on the label or that are of a sub-zone remain shackled to cork, for now.

Despite all this research and evidence of change in some of the most conservative wine-regions in the world, a lot of old-world markets will still not allow finishing in screwcap. Why? Because the archaic, out-theorised laws remain, and cork producers persist this. The association with cork and quality is anachronistic – would we reach for a jam jar sealed with a cork over one sealed with a screw cap because it appeared of higher quality? No you probably wouldn’t, though many goods (in fact most) were once sealed with a cork closure, but have now moved on to more effective, consistent modern closures.

Let’s reminisce here for a moment: do you remember perhaps 15 years ago the permanent black mechanical stain on the floor of our garages? And the steady dark, shiny line of oil that would run parallel to the gutter all the way down the road? This came from our motor vehicles, there’s no doubting that. But now it’s no longer a problem. Do you know why? It’s because the cork gaskets the car manufacturers used have been replaced by synthetic gaskets, meaning the frequent leaking and thus the necessity to habitually change oil has ceased. But why hasn’t the wine industry moved on from this clearly faulty material?

These thoughts pester in my mind. The reason why screw cap wines have a perception of inexpensiveness attached is due to that marketing machine working overtime, subtly perpetuating the traditionalistic norm of cork. Health scaresenvironmental Armageddon, key sponsorship, and any sort of crass marketing campaign is used to spawn a bewildering web of falsehoods.

It is limiting for vignerons the world over for some export markets to deny screwcap closures. The corollary of this is that there often are wines which have their bottling equally split between screwcap and cork closures. Aside from the obvious expense this entails as well as the additional time resources, it provides the unusual benefit that specimens for trial between the two closures are pervasive. If the inability to age is a continued argument for screwcap’s unsuitability, there is no reason that more trials and tastings cannot be carried out as progressively there are more instances of bi-closure lines bottled. Regardless we are beginning to see these results emerge – released both privately, and organizationally.

It is evident now that some of the most progressive sommeliers, winemakers and consumers find the sound of a twisting screwcap more romantic than that of a cork popping, largely because of the ramifications. Knowing your special wine ordered from the restaurant wine list, or just one picked up from a retailer that evening, is not going to be spoiled, even just minutely, is a wondrous thing. There is ceremony inherently involved. The night can be spent talking about the wine itself, not umming and arring over potential taint or spoilage, particularly if its minimal. Minimal taint still detracts from the magic of the wine, and in fact is worse – without having a comparison with another bottle of the same wine, we often suffer mediocrity. It reflects negatively on the wine experience and we doubt the producer’s skill and quality.

What can we do?

While we cannot deny a nation its livelihood, which it fears is on the ebb, we can reasonably request that it not publish, circulate, and propagate morally questionable, vilifying material about its competition, and develop emotional, topically opportunist campaigns for its own product while avoiding the main issues of cork taint and spoilage.

We can also appeal for greater elucidation of data and information from the screw cap producers, which would at least introduce some balance back into the all-important closure selection decision.