Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Addressing the Cork Problem in Champagne

While the rest of the wine world debates the virtues of Stelvins and Vino-Loks, here in Champagne there aren’t many options. Cork taint is as much of a problem here as anywhere else, but to bottle champagne with anything but cork is currently unthinkable. However, the classic champagne cork, as depicted in this photo, is not the only solution.

One idea has been to insulate the wine from the cork with a small piece of silicone. As you can see in the photo below, the silicone sits inside a little hollow carved out in the bottom of the cork, and when the cork is compressed there is no contact between the cork and the wine. Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet has been using this system exclusively since 2001, and has been very pleased with the results.

As with the argument for screwcaps presented by Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche in Chablis, Chiquet cites not only overt cork taint as being a problem with classic cork but also the variations between one bottle and the next, which can range from the subtle to the alarmingly pronounced. Chiquet produces about 200,000 bottles a year, which is more than most growers, and he estimates that with classic corks, the deviation (either overtly corky bottles or bottles where the character was obviously changed by cork) was above seven percent. Since converting to the silicone system, he finds the deviation to be less than one percent, and notes that the bottles of each wine are far more consistent in character.

Chiquet continues to do regular taste trials comparing classic cork, silicone-protected cork and metal capsule. Curiously, he says that the silicone system seems to develop mature flavors slightly faster within the first two years compared to classic cork, but then after two years it stabilizes and the two become much closer together in character. How this system affects long-term aging remains to be seen, but after seven years Chiquet is so far quite satisfied.

A newer innovation has been the Mytik Diamant cork, a conglomerate combining particles of treated cork with synthetic materials. According to Sibel, the manufacturing company, molecules of TCA are completely eliminated from the cork through the use of compressed and heated carbon dioxide, in a process employing the same technology used to decaffeinate coffee or to extract bitterness from hops. They don’t say what the cork is mixed with (the material is referred to simply as “micro-spheres”), but the minimum amount of cork used is 70 percent. Ophélie Lamiable of Champagne Lamiable has switched completely to Mytik corks since last year and notes a pronounced improvement so far in both the level of cork taint (essentially reduced to nil) and in the regularity of one bottle to the next. Some other producers who have embraced the Mytik cork are Billecart-Salmon, Moët & Chandon, Jean Milan and René Geoffroy.

One interesting characteristic is that Mytik corks are slightly more elastic than regular corks—in the photo above you can see that this cork from a bottle of Lamiable 2003 Les Meslaines, disgorged sometime last spring, hasn’t nearly the mushroom shape that a classic cork of the same age would have. This might explain why some people report that the Mytik is slightly more difficult to remove from the bottle than a traditional cork, although I haven’t found it to be particularly troublesome.

Some hidebound purists, especially here in Europe, have complained about the aesthetic properties of the Mytik. I suppose they prefer corky wine. It seems to have been accepted so far in export markets, though, without much comment. While I’m as much of a traditionalist as anybody, cork taint drives me crazy, and I also hate the idea of years of a vigneron’s time and labor being ruined or adversely altered, however slightly, by a little piece of tree bark. I am a huge fan of alternative closures in still wine, and I’m happy to see the champagne industry addressing the problem of cork taint.

Several years ago, Domaine Chandon Australia (Green Point in export markets) released their Vintage Brut under a metal crown cap, followed later by their sister company Domaine Chandon in California, who released their prestige cuvée Étoile in crown cap. I think this is a bold and laudable idea, and I would gladly buy champagne in crown cap if the authorities would let me. Alas, it’s still illegal here.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I've only had one wine with the silicon layer between wine and cork and it was a 2002 Spätlese from the Mosel, from a reputable producer, rather than Champagne.

It was spectacularly oxidized and though one shouldn't judge from one bottle, it was hard not to think that the whole batch looked like that (especially since said producer has returned to normal corks since).

Current studies for still wines all seem to like the hypercritical CO2 process, like in the Mithic cork you describe.

Keep at that blog!

peter said...

Odd, I've purchased some Chiquets here and there but haven't seen the silicon, do they do this with their NVs?

I'd be skeptical about the long term aging prospects of anything other than some type of cork - then again, I'm no scientist! :)

Peter Liem said...

Hello Jeremy,

That's interesting about that Spätlese. I don't see how this silicone is any different from screwcaps, as it's the same sort of material. Naturally there have been oxidation problems with screwcap as well, but there have also been notable successes. With this cork/silicone system, one wonders what the point is of retaining the cork part for still wines (the point in Champagne is that you still need the cork to stopper the bottle).

I'm optimistic about the Mytik corks. It'll be interesting to see how the wines develop with time.

Peter Liem said...

Hello Peter,

Yes, Chiquet uses it for their entire range of wines. I know they've been using it since 2001, but I don't know when they converted the entire production to it, so it's possible that the wines you purchased were still on classic cork. But all the Chiquets that I can remember drinking for at least the past five years or so have used this silicone system.

I'm no scientist either (which ought to be painfully obvious), but if you look at data from Australian trials of screwcaps (which have been going on for decades), it's quite promising. Tasting the wines is even more convincing. I'm not sure we've found the perfect alternative to cork yet, but I do believe that pursuing one is worthwhile.

Henri Vasnier said...

I probably taste in the range of 400+ bottles/year of sparkling wine and my unscientific, non statistically significant impression is that when it comes to percentage of corky bottles, the corks with a little silicone plug in contact with the wine are neither better nor worse than regular corks.

In general, I'm extremely in favor of alternative closures and extremely anti normal bark corks. I would (and in the case of Etoile, I do) buy beer caps on sparkling wine without hesitation, regardless of the wine's price. I don't think I've ever seen a sparkling wine under a Stelvin cap and, since Stelvins are a touch more fragile than regular still wine corks, therefore significantly more fragile than normal champagne corks including cap and cage, I'm skeptical that Stelvin is the right solution for bubbly.

Peter Liem said...

Sorry, I guess at this point I was speaking of still wines in screwcap, and didn't make that very clear. It's not currently possible to bottle sparkling wine iin Stelvin, as far as I know.

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