Removing Doubt About Wine Closures: Notes from the Nomacorc Cellar

I must be honest. My first experience with a plastic cork was not a good one. It involved a bright, swirly neon-yellow plug that was stuffed into a bottle of Chardonnay.

I was tasked with opening this bottle at a party. The corkscrew went into it, but then slipped out as soon as I tried to lever it free. The sides of the plastic cork were firmly stuck to the walls of the bottle’s neck, and our poor corkscrew could not get a firm enough grasp to break the cork away from its death grip. We tried digging it out with a small knife. We tried different corkscrews. We tried swearing at it. A lot.

Eventually we pushed the cork in and poured the wine to whomever hadn’t already given up and moved on to other drinks.

Later I avoided purchasing that (or any other) wine from that producer, and I cringed whenever I peeled back the foil to reveal a plastic cork. “Oh no, here we go again.” In my mind, plastic corks clearly meant cheap wine. I wanted quality wines, and quality wines were meant for aging, so if a wine had a plastic cork, I wasn’t interested in keeping it around.

I couldn’t have been the only person to have had a bad experience with those hard plastic corks—no doubt wine producers noticed problems as well. But here’s what happens when something isn’t quite right with a particular technology: Somebody figures out a way to make it better. A lot better, in this case. This is the wine that did it:

Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Released in 2007, the Eberle Cabernet was made from 30-year-old vines and sealed with an earlier generation of Nomacorc’s engineered corks. Winemaker Ben Mayo was on hand to pour it as part of a special tasting.

The color struck me first. It was beautifullyEberle deep crimson red but with a lighter brick red rim around the outside. It was a cold February day in Raleigh, NC, and the sky was completely white, casting a beautiful glow through the windows that made the wine’s color stand out.

There were no oxidized notes or overly dried fruit aromas on the nose, and the palate was full of complex flavors. But what I remember the most was the texture. It had tannins (I love tannins) and acidity (I love acidity) and both were amazingly smooth and beautifully balanced. This was a beautifully aged, superb quality wine.

Tasting a decade-old California Cabernet and finding out that it’s awesome is hardly news. But tasting an awesome wine at that age that’s sealed with a plastic cork is news. I was amazed.

Mr. Mayo, clearly confident with his choice of closures for his wines, had barely even sniffed it to check its quality before pouring.  This kind of confidence is not common among winemakers and wine service staff, who must be constantly on the lookout for faulted bottles. It would be liberating to remove that almost paranoid aspect of the wine service industry. Imagine serving wines without having to check them first!

We are clearly on that path with Nomacorc’s engineered corks. I know which wineries use them locally and those are the wines I go to when I need a no-fail bottle. Plus, they’re easy to open. No swearing needed!

About the Author

Luke Whittall is a wine professional based in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. He blogs and podcasts at Winecountrybc.ca and is a freelance writer and musician.

Comments

  1. congratulations you found the exception to the rule. This cork is not recyclable and fills landfills. Natural cork is good for the environment and there is no question it protects the wine and allows it to age naturally and mature gracefully.

    1. Thanks for commenting Michael. That’s part of what my hesitation was about when I first began to study this topic years ago. However, Nomacorc corks are in fact as recyclable as anything else plastic like water bottles, product packaging or milk containers. As to the ageability, I agree that cork can allow that to happen gracefully. I also noticed that you didn’t use the word “consistently”. The event I described in the article along with other wines that I have become familiar with locally that use Nomacorc have shown me that wines can age beautifully with these engineered corks and that they can do so controllably and consistently.

      The common argument against “synthetic” corks is that natural cork is natural (a word you use twice in your comment) and I would assume that all other closures are unnatural and therefore are bad. 6 years ago, I would have readily agreed with you on this. But this argument tends to fall apart when it was pointed out to me that glass bottles are not natural either and that perhaps someone should start a movement to go back to a more natural wine container like a wine skin made from goat’s bladders. Now there’s a natural product! So where does ‘natural’ end and ‘human’ begin? Asbestos fibre is natural as well but does it make sense to use it everywhere?

      I interviewed a gentleman named Jeff Weissler on a podcast for my own website years ago and he had some interesting things to say about that very topic that got me thinking beyond the product source itself and more about its impact as part of the whole economic ecosystem of wine production. (https://winecountrybc.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/podcast-50-conscious-wine-with-jeff-weissler/) His interest was in organic / biodynamic wines and its impact on the environment at every step from pre-production to post-consumption. At 27:00 of the podcast, I asked him about closures – screw caps or corks? Natural corks were obviously positive considering the natural source, the tree’s ability to sequester carbon, and as recyclable source material for post-consumption use.

      But then he points out that cork taint (also natural) is unavoidable and the economic sustainability and reputation of a winery becomes at risk. When the conservative estimate of TCA-affected bottles is 6%, that’s 6% of the total production of a winery that is using packing and transportation resources absolutely needlessly. (As a sales rep for a natural cork company, you can no doubt match this stat with other stats from other studies, but this is the figure most often quoted by the people like myself who actually sell the wines.) It is completely wasteful but it is impossible to curtail. Also, in terms of the carbon footprint of packaging and supply, cork is only made in one place in the world and shipped to everywhere else, effectively adding to that footprint before the wine is even in the bottle.

      Natural may not always be the best way. Everything is evolving and I find it incredibly interesting to witness this aspect of the wine industry unfolding. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Also, Nomacorc’s Select BIO closures are zero-carbon footprint closures that are made from plant-based polymers from sugar cane: totally sustainable and recyclable. Nomacorc is an environmentally-conscious company looking to the future of wine and O2 management.

    1. Agreed. As well, having multiple facilities around the world helps cut down on the transportation footprint as well so one place’s products don’t have to be shipped around the world. Using rail for shipping whenever possible impressed me as well. I grew up in a small town where the railway was a huge part of life and it’s great to see a company use it.

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