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French wine grower Michel Agnel displays a few bottles of wine with screw caps. (AFP/File Photo)

French winemakers mull screw cap vs. cork


BORDEAUX, France (AFP) - To lovers of fine wine there is no more satisfying sound then the pop of a cork as a favorite vintage is opened. The twist of a screw cap just doesn't carry the same hint of promise.

But the metal top is moving up market.

Last month Andre Lurton, a Bordeaux company producing four million bottles of wine a year in the six-to 25-euro (seven to 29 dollars) price range, announced it is to fit all its white wines with screw caps, and may soon offer a red in the same style.

"We are convinced about screw caps. They are better, certainly for white wine," said Veronique Bouffard, communications manager at Andre Lurton.

But the company faces an uphill battle to convince a skeptical public both here and abroad that wine in a screwtop bottle is not a cheap, nasty beverage.

The image problem is such that in France, Germany and Belgium, Lurton will continue to offer wines with traditional cork stoppers.

Bouffard believes that even a good red Bordeaux will eventually be found in screwtop bottles, but many remain unconvinced.

"Consumers would have a hard time paying a couple of hundred dollars for a bottle with a screw cap," said Jeffrey Davies, an American wine merchant based in Bordeaux.

"For whites and rose it is good for sure, but for top Bordeaux, no. Not in my lifetime, or yours," he added.

At Barriere Freres, an established Bordeaux negotiant the reaction was the same. "For anything over 15 to 20 euros retail, the screw cap is out of the question," said director Laurent Ehrmann.

He recently tried to persuade a number of international airlines to use screw caps instead of the traditional cork sealed Bordeaux for first and business class, but no one was interested.

However, screwtop enthusiasts stress the advantages.

Screw caps, they say, avoid the risk of "cork taint" -- a bad taste caused by the chemical trichloroanisole (TCA) found in cork, which is estimated to affect between three and six percent of bottles, and which leads to the complaint that a wine is "corked".

They are also copletely airtight, preventing oxidation, something that is important for white wines, and a subject of debate when it comes to red.

According to one argument, some air is needed in order for red wines to age properly in the bottle. Hence many of Bordeaux's top producers, whose wines evolve in the bottle over 30 to 50 plus years, remain suspicious of screw tops.

"There is a possibility that some oxygen does help the aging process so we are also trying out screw caps that let in a little bit of air," Bouffard said.

At Chateau Margaux, one of Bordeaux most exclusive and most expensive red wines, director Paul Pontallier is experimenting with screw caps, but says any move to commercial use will depend on how well they perform over time.

"We are in this for the very long term. We dont want to change unless it can be proved to last 25 to 30 to 40 years. This is the minimum for Chateau Margaux," Pontallier said.

Not a surprising attitude, perhaps, given that corks taken from slow growing cork trees found mainly in Portugal, Algeria and Spain, have been in use since the Ancient Greeks first closed wine jugs with them in 5 BC.

Margaux has bottled a small amount of its second wine, Pavillion Rouge 2002, currently selling for 30 to 40 euro per bottle, with screw caps to see how it ages.

"We will taste it in one or two years and continue to experiment with other vintages. We want to temper our enthusiasm with our experience," Pontallier said.

But Jean Luc Zell, director at Chateau Agassac, argued: "It is a myth that red wine needs air to age." Agassac will bottle their 2004 vintage for release in April in a choice of screw caps or corks.

"Red wine evolves very well without air. It has air in the barrel and in the cuve (concrete vats used for aging wine). Also, take a bottle of your grandfather's, and you will see it is sealed with wax. That does not allow air in, and the wine is fine," Zell said.

"We do not want to impose screw caps, but to offer something that avoids the problems of cork and is simpler for new consumers," he explained.

But despite their popularity with many producers, consumers in some markets, namely France, are proving resistant.

"A survey in 2004 by SOFRES (a leading French survey company) shows that 77 percent of regular wine drinkers prefer corks," said Jacques-Olivier Baugier of Oeneo Bouchage, the second largest cork maker in the world.

Oeneo Bouchage have thus invested 25 million euros, over a seven-year collaboration with the French Atomic Energy Commission, developing an almost TCA free, to 0.5 percent, cork product.

"Screw caps, which we also make, work for white wine, or fruity wine, basically for wine that does not need some air to evolve," Baugier said.

"But for wines that are more structured, tannic, a cork with a bit more permeability is better. For the grand vins of Bordeaux, this (the TCA free cork) is the answer," he added.

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