I’m reminded every day that the appreciation and enjoyment of wine is a very personal experience. What you like may not be the cat’s meow for someone else. This was evident at the ’10 Oregon Wine Industry Symposium (OWIS), “Technical Tasting: Seeking Closure & Hi-Tech Winemaking“.

Most of the attendees were winemakers, viticulturists and industry folks in the know when it comes to high-tech stuff like RO, ultra-filtration or VA (don’t worry, we’ll get to these wine geek terms in a later post) but what blew me away at this event were all the differences in opinions between the wines we tasted.

There were a few hundred industry folks locked in a room (well, not literally) for a couple of hours to taste and discuss closures and Hi-Tech Winemaking. Harry Peterson-Nedry from Chehalem Winery moderated the session with panelists Domingo Rodriguez (Winesecrets), Clark Smith (Vinovation) and David Paige (Adelsheim Vineyard).

We kicked off the technical tasting with a comparison between cork and screw cap closures, blind tasting two white wines – identical in every way except one was bottled using cork, and the other under screw cap.  So what’s the verdict?

Harry asked us to taste both samples and identify which one we preferred. This was exciting stuff since it’s not like we get to experiment with this sort of comparison every day. Seriously, can anyone really have a strong opinion on cork vs. screw cap without a trial that compares apples to apples?

I thought it was best to go in with an open mind and try not to guess which wine was under cork or screw cap. I simply tasted the wines and selected the one I liked best.

Wine #2 had more pronounced aromas and flavors. The aromas were bright and the flavors seemed to instill a more vivacious appeal than the first wine. As everyone scribbled notes and marked their papers for preferences, Harry announced we were drinking barrel-fermented chardonnay. “With a show of hands, how many of you preferred the first wine? What about the second wine?” The verdict seemed to be split down the middle.

So which wine was which? Wine #2 happened to be the one under screw cap. Was I surprised? Not really, but this did, in my opinion, debunk the theory that cork screw liners inhibit oxygen transmission into the bottle, which [if you haven’t heard] causes reductions of aromas and flavors. Interesting indeed.

Clark actually agreed with my choice but reneged his decision, “… I certainly preferred the second wine (screw cap) but now knowing that it’s a chardonnay, I’m not sure I would take that same view“.

We also tasted two identical ’03s and two ’04 Pinot noirs under cork and screw cap. To some extent, I preferred the cork closure in the ’03 but the distinction between the ’04s were extremely difficult to ascertain, which brings me to the Plumpjack story.

Back in ’97, the vintner embarked on an experiment and bottled half of their premium $160 Cabernet Sauvignon with cork screw closures. Before this time, vintners only used screw cap closures for inexpensive white wines.

In ’07 (ten years later), PlumpJack invited friends and wine writers to compare and contrast the ’97 screw cap and cork bottles side-by-side. Amazingly, most could not tell the difference between the two.

I immediately thought about the Plumpjack story when Harry announced what we were drinking. I know this was a small trial, but the evidence seemed to show that the longer the wine was cellared, the more difficult it was to differentiate which wine was under cork and which wine was under screw cap. Gotta love this stuff.

Personally, my take on the OWIS trial is that screw caps seemed to show well for young white wines and reds with 8+ years cellaring time. Red wines that are drinkable upon release (with shorter cellar times) might be better suited for cork.

Harry went on to say that, “We’ll have to track these [trials] over time, we’re just taking a snapshot right now, and we don’t have a lot of material available to us from trials“.

Domingo went on to say, “we may have to adapt some of our winemaking before we use alternative wine closures“.  I’m not sure if I agree with this statement. If I were a winemaker, I wouldn’t tolerate wine closures dictating how I make my wine, but that’s just me.

It would be interesting to repeat this technical tasting by throwing in a few [younger and older] red wine samples and other closures such as Vino-Seal or synthetic (heck, for kicks, lets throw in tetra-pak as suggested from my twitter friends @NWTotemCellars and @nectarwine)!

So winemakers and enophiles, what’s your preference, cork or screw cap? Why? Hit me up with your comments. I’m listening.

Next up, we’ll taste a flight of four Lodi Syrah’s and give you the findings of an astringency test. Geek alert! Woot! Woot!

~Pamela Heiligenthal