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How do we protect our wines?

When we set out three years ago to remake our brand we also began a journey to examine everything in our vineyard, winemaking and packaging processes with a goal to achieve the highest quality possible. How we protect our wines in the bottle has been a very important part of understanding what it means to strive to be the best.

For nearly 24 months we’ve been researching and experimenting with various types of wine bottle enclosures. While it is difficult to know how an enclosure will perform over a longer period of time, we wanted to adopt a high quality solution for our family’s first Clos Marey-Monge bottling in 2015 — so time was of the essence.

The selection of a wine enclosure has become pretty complicated. Technical corks, synthetic enclosures and yes even screw caps are becoming more popular. Like everything in the world of wine there are different opinions and varying levels of quality that producers follow based on one’s viewpoint and budget. More than a third of wineries today are using screw caps for at least part of their production. A few years ago this would have been unheard of but as the market for wine grows and the demographics become increasingly segmented this is the new reality.

Historically natural cork has been most frequently used because of its ability to compress and expand to form a tight seal and protect wine for decades. This same material allows wine in the bottle to breathe over long periods and is environmentally friendly. Natural corks are easy to recycle and sustainably produced with trees being stripped of their bark just every nine years. But potential “cork taint” has always been the main drawback of natural cork. This is what we mean when we refer to a “corked” bottle of wine. How does this happened? A substance called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) in the wine can occur naturally but in most cases is caused by the cork itself due to natural occurrences. The possibility of corked wine is much less than it used to be as production processes have improved reducing the possibility of TCA contamination.

The antithesis to natural cork is the screw cap. These enclosures are typically made from aluminum and placed atop a bottle as opposed to being pushed into the bottle’s opening like a natural cork enclosure. Defenders of screw caps say they offer a better seal and protect wine against taint by preventing oxygen from interacting with the wine. But many winemakers claim screw caps cause unwanted reduction by suppressing wine and aromas in the bottle and not allowing it to slowly breath — affecting its overall quality and aging. Mostly screw caps are popular with less expensive wines due to the low cost of these enclosures. We never really considered using screw caps on our wines given the uncertain nature of their performance over time and our expectation that our wines must interact with a minimal amount of oxygen over time.

Synthetic enclosures, usually made of injection molded plastics, are designed to behave like natural cork in how they look and function. Like screw caps these enclosures do not present the risk of TCA contamination, but it can be really hard to open a bottle with a synthetic cork because they are less flexible than natural cork. Unlike screw caps, synthetic enclosures tend to expose bottled wine to too much oxygen given the porous nature of the material. Obviously the environmental impact has also created some opposition because synthetic enclosures are mostly hydrocarbon based and not biodegradable. Given that we are doing everything we can to abide by sustainable practices, using synthetic enclosures wasn’t really an option for us.

The latest attention in wine enclosures seems to be around what are called “technical corks.” These are corks made from natural cork material, usually ground up into granules and then bound together with some type of glue or binding agent. Engineered enclosures like DIAM are the most popular. If you’ve ever seen these types of corks, they look at first like natural cork. But closer inspection reveals something that appears less natural and less pliable, similar to synthetics. Proponents would say that technical corks lesson the risk of cork taint since the granules can more easily be tested in mass for TCA. Opponents would say the breathing qualities of the binding agents and granules mix is unknown. This along with the reduced cost compared to natural cork probably explains why technical corks are mostly used with wines meant to be consumed in just a few years. DIAM is very popular in places like Oregon.

Our requirements were to identify an enclosure type that would offer the most predictable performance over a long period of time. Pommard wines are best when consumed 10 to 30 years after bottling. Important in our aging process is the protection of the wine from outside influences but also the ability for the wine to slowly breath and interact with just the right amount of oxygen, allowing the wine to gracefully age and to prevent unwanted reduction. Of course we are also concerned about making sure our enclosures don’t taint our wines. Making wine is a long and passionate process. The last thing a winemaker wants is a corked bottle in the hands of a customer.

For several years now, vendors have tested random cork samples but some producers now examine every single cork for threshold TCA levels. We decided to work with a few natural cork providers that test every single cork. Our specification for our new bottle was a 25 mm diameter cork that is 49 mm in length.  Designing our own bottle from scratch provided us with the advantage of maximizing the glass and enclosure interface. We believe the size provides us with the maximum seal against the glass bottle but also provides the correct amount of oxygen to interact with the wine over a 10 to 30 year period of time.

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