Closures: Part 1 ­– the world’s most high profile experiment?

Paul Pontallier, director, Château Margaux

Paul Pontallier. Photo credit: François Poincet

In February this year, Paul Pontallier showed the results of a range of experiments at the Bordeaux property to the press for the first time in London. Among his trials, which concerned a range of winemaking and viticultural techniques, were a set of three reds from the 2003 vintage, and three white wines from the 2004 harvest, sealed under different closures – one natural cork and two screwcaps with different linings (Saratin and Saranex, the latter being more oxygen-permeable). Pontallier had also trialled wines under synthetic corks, but has decided not to show them, as the results were “catastrophic”. All the wines in the experiment were prepared in the same way.

The wines were made from vineyard parcels which would have been used for Pavillon Rouge and Blanc, and were served blind to a packed room of UK press. After each flight – one for red, and another for white – Pontallier asked for a show of hands to see which was the preferred wine.

For the red flight, a quick count of hands indicated the wine sealed under the Saratin-lined screwcap as the favourite, and Pontallier himself said that the wine aged under impermeable screwcap [Saratin-lined] was probably his preferred option: “Because I find the mouth softer.”

Interestingly with the white wines, the room voted for the first of the flight, which had been sealed using natural cork, and actually tasted the youngest and freshest, although it wasn’t markedly different from the third one, closed using a Saratin-lined screwcap. In both red and white flights, the wines under the more permeable Saranex screwcap showed elements of oxidation, and more forward, evolved aromatics than either the natural cork or less permeable screwcap.

Speaking to Pontallier more recently about the background to the experiments, he explained that he had begun the closure trial in 2002 due to a high level of TCA in the wines from the Margaux property and because of the advent of screwcaps as a credible alternative. Even today, despite buying the “best natural cork on the market from four different suppliers,” he said that TCA is still an issue in the wines of Château Margaux, all of which are sealed using natural cork. “The cork people have indeed made lots of progress, and today TCA is below 1%, but this is still unacceptable; even if only one bottle in a thousand is ruined, it is ridiculous.”

As for the results of the experiments, he says he finds it very difficult to draw conclusions at this stage: “What we have seen is a slightly different evolution [depending on the closure type]… but today it is too early.” Pontallier feels that he will need to wait another decade or two before he can conclusively decide whether one closure is better than another. And recent blind tastings with people who know Châteaux Margaux “very well” haven’t been conclusive, with no clear consensus on whether the wine under one particular closure is better than under another.

Pontallier also added that of the many factors that go into closure choice, it is the technical performance that is the most important. So if screwcaps give better results with Pavillon Rouge or Blanc in another 10 years’ time, will Pontalier make the switch? “If we conclude that one closure is significantly better than the other, then we would be really tempted to use it – whatever it is.”

9 Responses to “Closures: Part 1 ­– the world’s most high profile experiment?”

  1. Mike says:

    It’s just too bad that both synthetic and screwcap closures have evolved so much over the last 10 years, making this experiment interesting, but not very useful. The data collected has little to no direct bearing on modern alternative closures. So yeah, interesting read, but not useful in making closure decisions.

  2. Chris says:

    Mike, There may have been changes to the synthetic corks, but the screwcaps that were used by Chateau Margaux (with Sarantin and Saranex liner) are still the primary liner options and are still available on the market.

  3. David Wollan says:

    It seems extraordinary to me that the closure matter is still controversial. Screwcaps have been a successful closure for decades. As wine science students in the late 1970s, we made wine at what is now Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga Australia. The 1978 vintage were mainly white wines of their era, produced fairly anaerobically and were bottled using Stelvin closures. Some were sealed with natural cork. Occasionally over the decades since then, I would try one of these bottles. All the wines under cork had completely faded over 20 years ago. Those under screwcap were certainly developed but still drinkable after 30 years.
    As a winemaker, consultant and technologist over many years, my experience with the variability of cork has been bitter. It is not just TCA but the unpredictability of the sealing performance of cork that has convinced me that its time has passed.
    People should understand and accept that wine maturation has 2 distinct stages: the oxidative in the winery when the winemaker allows the tannin and other characters to develop and resolve; and the reductive in bottle where different, slower reactions take place. Oxygen ingress into the bottle is hard to control and has little positive to offer. The results for the permeable liners, are thus not surprising.

  4. Yo he degustado los vinos del Chateau Margaux. A ver, mis favoritos del Chateau, claro esta por calidad-dinero,
    mi favorito es el Pavillon Blanc, siempre embotellado en bordelesa y tapon corcho natural. Luego el Pavillon rouge
    este, realmente no he podido apreciarlo tanto. Esto asi, pues siempre me ha parecido un St. Emilion por su bouquet,
    aunque no muy pronunciado en el Pavillon.
    No quiero comentar sobre el Chateau Margaux, ya ese es otra cosa …Oh, la,la, para eso hay que tener muchas
    experiencias en ese caldo excepcionalmente “excelente”.

  5. Andrew Gunn, Iona says:

    A positive outcome in my opinion, indicating that Saratin and a good cork both perform well. We are also surprised that cork closures in whites are often preferred and retain freshness. Very much a perception and up to the consumer, but venture to say we won’t see screwcaps on 1st growths or Grand Crus, this would take a brave winemaker indeed!

  6. Sean Williams says:

    Good info — I used cork as a determinant in a report on “The Quality of Wine” for a college geography assignment. The 2 & 7/8ths inch Bordeaux corks were impressive when presented by the sommelier. Keep me posted.

  7. Beatrix says:

    I prefer to buy wine red and white with cork, I hate it if I have to open a bottle with a screw cap! It’s just not the same! It’s like opening brandy not wine!
    The wine taste even better with the cork! We use to drink a glass of the same red wine every day that use to be cork and since it is change to a screw cap it don’t taste the same anymore and it taste if there is a sharp taste in the wine. I don’t even buy that wine anymore!

  8. MJ says:

    This is a very interesting experiment indeed. May I ask why you did not also use Diam in the trial?

  9. Grant Ramage says:

    I’m interested to know whether any of the wines for the comparative tasting were found to be TCA-affected and, if so, were they served or replaced with ‘clean’ samples?

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