Controversies in the Wine World: The Latest on Terroir and Screwcaps

The concept of terroir generates lots of disagreement in the wine world. (“Terroir “ is the French word that refers to the claim that the land on which grapes are grown  and the surrounding microclimate contributes special properties to wine that are unique to that  geographical location.)

The French swear that preserving terroir is the most important feature of winemaking. New world producers are split on the idea, some claiming that the whole idea is bunk. And it has been a challenge to demonstrate scientifically precisely how features of the soil/climate system can impart specific flavors to the wine.

Recent studies at the University of Auckland suggest that local yeasts are also part of the equation and help determine regional differences in wine characteristics.

The research, conducted by Velimir Gayevskiy and Dr Matthew Goddard of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, detected distinct differences between indigenous yeast strains in different regions.

This is far from proving that local yeasts help to define a regional flavor profile, especially because yeast can develop in the winery as well as the vineyard, but it  certainly lends support to the view that location matters in determining the unique characteristics of a wine. Chalk up a win for the terroirists.

Another controversy in the wine world concerns the use of screwcaps to eliminate the roughly 1%-5% of wines that suffer from cork taint. Screwcaps do prevent most cork taint but they may also influence how a wine ages in the bottle since the cap, in theory, effectively seals out the oxygen that catalyses the aging process. The famed (and very expensive) Bordeaux producer Chateau Margaux has been experimenting with screwtops since 2002 on their lesser wines to determine their impact on ageing.

This summary of the research thus far explains why we won’t be seeing screwtops from top Bordeaux producers anytime soon. The stakes are high since consumers pay hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of dollars for a bottle. As Margaux’s rep Paul Pontallier notes:

Using a screwcap for white or red wines when you are sure they are all drunk after two or three years makes a lot of sense,’ says Pontallier. ‘But for wines that we expect to go through a very special evolution for 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, we don’t exactly know. We are not brave (or stupid) enough to use screwcaps without this knowledge.’

And the results thus far are inconclusive. The closure does effect the wine but which closure produces a more appealing aged wine is a matter of some debate. Tasters disagree about which they prefer. But they will likely have plenty of opportunity to reach consensus.

‘Our wines have an extraordinary potential to remain fresh for as long as a century or even more. So we have to be pretty sure if we are going to change the closure.’

Achieving certainty may take a very long time.

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