“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





02 September 2014


We already fought this war!
Hey, hey TCA: how many
wines did you spoil today?

There's a lot of excited popping around the cork business lately. The bark merchants can smell money.

Because China still thinks wine is a quaint and old fashioned luxury, its merchants and sommeliers insist on wine being corked. Many Australian winemakers who have been entirely happy with screwcaps but are keen to sell wine in China are suddenly having to remember how to phone the blokes who sell the old Portuguese bark plugs.

Small premium producers who don't have the volumes to justify bottling under both closures, to offer customers a choice, are finding themselves hoping that Australian wine lovers who have become accustomed to the convenience and reliability of screwcap will suddenly overlook their return to cork. The new Chinese agent wants cork; everybody's gotta have cork.

This is on the nose.

In China, it don't matter a fig that the screwcap keeps wine fresher longer. Being heavily influenced by the French, who don't mind a bit of tish, the poor buggers are impressed by that smelly, suss little scrap of old-fashioned western ritual.

I hate corks. Sure, I've loved and recommended many wines that came plugged with them, but it's no secret that I've encouraged the march to better, more scientifically proven closures for thirty-five years. I thought this battle had been won.

I suspect the quality of cork shipped to Australia may have improved slightly in recent years. But I can't forget the days when a case of wine would typically contain three good bottles, three that tasted vaguely disappointing, three that were simply flat and not good, and three that were rotten with the perfectly named contaminant, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. Winemakers have conveniently abbreviated this to the prettier-sounding TCA. As if we needed another TLA*.

This delight is matched only by the aptly-named butylated hydroxyanisole, which is that rancid stink of the fat that launched a thousand chips.

The health police eventually imposed rigid limits on the permitted amounts of butylated hydroxyanisole in fish'n'chip shop fat, but winemakers flatly denied their 2,4,6-trichloroanisole rip-off rate, and expected nobody to notice. And they were ripping us off. It was a rip-off. They are capable of ripping their customers off. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the world of screw don't pull. Now they're sending corked wine to China.

My readers deserve better: in my day-to-day tasting, anything with a cork and its associated suss goes straight to the end of the line. When I announced my new tasting protocol in The Advertiser in 1990, reading winemakers began to realise the game may have been up. 

I couldn't be confident that the corked wine I recommended was much like the bottle my reader bought.

To recap: for decades Australia has made wine so clean and sanitary and stable, using shiny stainless steel, that it is always put in brand new bottles. Rather than wash them for refilling, we use vast amounts of energy to melt the bottles down and blow new ones in order to store the wine in the scientific food-grade sanctity it deserves.

Then we get a piece of bark from a tree in Portugal and bash it down the throat of the perfectly clean brand new bottle full of perfectly clean brand new wine.

The spongiform nature of natural corks makes each one a five-star high-rise for microbes, germs and minibugs of all sorts. Think of your cork oak there in Portugal: squirrel piss; birdshit; bulls scratching their quaking arses before the bullfight. Peel the bark off, bleach it to make it look better, bash it in your bottle and you get the reaction that produces that carrion anisole twang.

Back to natural cork makes about as much sense as returning to the natural wine skin. Now that's a lovely heritagey idea: a new market for all our feral pigs and goats!

Our blokes are obviously not explaining these issues to the good clean people of China. I mean they'll come home sniggering about how the poor Asians are still putting Coke in their red, but they'll have no qualms about flogging them container after container of plonk with bark plugs. I'd probably have Coke in my red too if I was on the receiving end of that.

Coke, just by the way, used to have a little cork wafer under its cap. For all the right reasons, like those listed above, they rejected cork in the 'sixties. The product suddenly improved. Imagine Coke "going back to natural cork"?

I heard a cork flogger preaching his gospel at a tasting last week: like dozens of cork floggers before him have preached for decades, he promised that any day soon the problems of cork would be over. Just like that. It's coming. Somebody's always inventing some new plastic coating or prophylactic sandwich or something, giving these proselytisers fresh chapters to preach. But anybody not selling them knows that a cork is still a frigging cork.

Everything about cork is corky. You can't put a natural cork in a bottle without the cork influencing the flavour and aroma of the wine. The damned things may have worked to a more tolerable extent when you had a jeeves or a Denholm Elliot or somebody subservient in the next room getting his toolbox out to remove the bark plug, test the wine, discretely tip it out if it was too corky, or decant it and present it to your table if it seemed vaguely okay.

Corks might even be slightly more acceptable when your wine waiter does all that for you in the restaurant you like to attend because you can't afford servants at home but here you can pretend for a while that suddenly you can. Now we have wine bar staff who refuse to use corkscrews: they've never needed them because they love the immediacy and reliable safety of the screwie, Bacchus bless 'em.

Even the Portuguese sardine fishermen realised decades ago that if you want your customers to eat all these fish you catch, you can't expect them to carry round a special spanner to get the fish out of the tin. So first they gave us the key, now they give us the flip-top tin. The idea of having to carry a corkscrew round in your handbag in case you get thirsty is just plain old codswallop. 

And the idea of wrapping a cork in a plastic franger to make it more sanitary, then selling it as natural, also beggars belief.

“The quality issues with natural cork in the early 2000s meant Australian winemakers had no choice but to seek alternatives to cork for their wines,” a press release from a cork mob advised me today.

“SmartCork, with its low failure rate and its ability to consistently deliver fresh, intense and fruity wines, now gives them the opportunity to return to natural cork with confidence.

“In time we hope to see membrane-coated corks accepted as the closure of choice in Australia.” 

Closure of choice? You know where you can put that.
 *TLA: three-letter acronym


Gavin said...

Phillip, I was at that same tasting, and that same cork flogger had already grabbed me, and bent my ear earlier.

What a load of codswallop ... but, that winery at the tasting has now gone back to corks.

Retrograde step!

Anonymous said...

1. we like the 'pop'
2. made for market
3. You are the minority even if you are right :)

Philip White said...

1. pop away ... just don't muck it up for Australia

2. Coke is market sensitive, which is why it disposed of cork when I was at high school

3. Einstein was a minority.

Anonymous said...

"I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

- Lloyd Bentsen