A Twist on Washington Red Wine: Comparing Cork and Screwcap

Hogue Genesis Merlot 2003
The cork versus screwcap debate gets most contentious when talking about how red wine will age when sealed under one closure versus the other. So it was a rare treat to be invited to attend a seminar hosted by Hogue Cellars to taste five bottles of 2003 Hogue Genesis Merlot, each sealed under a different closure. How, at 8 years of age, would each red wine fare? (Read my previous post to see how Hogue’s screwcap-sealed Riesling performed starting with the 2004 vintage.)

After sampling the red wine in glasses A-E we found out what kind of closure was used to seal the bottle:

  • A: Saranex* screwcap (with nitrogen dosing)
  • B: Saranex screwap (no nitrogen dosing)
  • C: Synthetic cork (low oxygen ingress)
  • D: Natural cork
  • E: Synthetic cork (moderate oxygen ingress)

*Saranex is a barrier film that is more oxygen-permeable than a tin liner.

My favorite? The Merlot in D, sealed with a natural cork. As Co Dinn, Director of Winemaking for The Hogue Cellars, stated, it showed “how well cork can do when you get a good one.” Even though we were discussing Hogue’s shift to 100% screwcap closures with their 2009 vintage, this was not an exercise in cork-bashing and Co’s respectful attitude and thoughtful critique of a variety of closures was much appreciated.

My least favorite was the Merlot in Glass A.  It just tasted flat. Which seemed to confirm Hogue’s decision not put any nitrogen in the headspace (area between wine and closure). The red wine needs that extra oxygen for development of secondary characteristics over time. As far as B, C, and E, they all had qualities I enjoyed and good balance between tannin and fruit; D and A just happened to stand out for reasons good and not-so-good, respectively.

Rather than looking at this issue as a battle between cork and screwcap, I found myself most intrigued about the research that Hogue did into finding the right screwcap and accounting for variables (such as sulfur level, addition or omission of nitrogen, and measuring oxygen ingress) to fine-tune the process to enable a red wine to age properly. If you really want to nerd out, there is much more information about Hogue’s screwcap study. (Including spider graphs! Which just sound cool.)

So how do you feel about putting reds sealed with a screwcap in your cellar?

A Hogue Riesling Vertical

Hogue Riesling Vertical
When you get a chance to taste a vertical of wine, normally images of something very fancy-pants, precious, and expensive come to mind. But at Hogue’s presentation/tasting detailing the results of a new study about alternate closures (and switch to 100% screwcaps starting with the 2009 vintage), their humble Riesling shined. We sampled a vertical from 2004-2009, all sealed under screwcap. The 2004 was still lively-tasting, showing some secondary characteristics and a little bit of a funky, earthy finish; one to guzzle-up in the near future. (Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit about the finish; keep in mind this is a sub-$10 Riesling. The 05 is still going strong; I don’t think it’s even plateaued yet.) All the Rieslings had good balance between sweetness and acidity; much more refreshing than cloying. This is the second time I’ve taken part in this tasting and I’ve walked away with the same thought: “Why am I not stashing away a case (or more) for a few years?”

Director of Winemaking Co Dinn gave us an interesting background in all the trials and tests to determine how wine ages when sealed under screwcap. This was especially daunting as, he explained, “People who make screwcaps are capmakers, not winemakers.” Co’s team at Hogue had to do a lot of research into how the wine in the bottle was affected by oxygen transfer. It was also great to have Gary Hogue in attendance. He spoke of his farming background, and how when his family went into the wine business he “couldn’t even pronounce Gewurztraminer.” Gary also talked about the reason the company started experimenting with alternate closures: “When you have your name on a product and there is a problem, you’re embarrassed.”

After the round of Rieslings we got into the reds. Five glasses of 2003 Genesis Merlot–each from a bottle sealed with a different closure–were set in front of us. We would find out after trying the lot which was which. Now this was really interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I think it deserves a separate  post. (Stay tuned.)

So what’s your take on wines sealed with a screwcap?