User Friendly — Clare Valley riesling sealed with a twist

Written by me, and originally published in The Australian Financial Review, October 2000

PETER BARRY, OF JIM BARRY WINES, WAS SO IMPRESSED WITH THE NEW STELVIN SCREW CAPS which fourteen* (see footnote) Clare Valley riesling producers employed with the bottling of their vintage 2000 releases that he immediately declared, 'I'm going to put all my white wines under Stelvin!' He then qualified this by saying, 'You know one thing though. Because it's so bloody easy to just twist the cap off a bottle, you’ll find yourself reaching for another one all too easily.'

Doesn't sound like much of a problem to me — I thought — and was instantly reminded of the words of Californian vintner Bon Trinchero who has lamented about the reluctance of wine producers to adopt new packaging technology. ‘If you look at the wine business compared to other beverage businesses,’ he told me in a personal conversation a few years back, ‘We are really in the dark ages in making the product user-friendly. The beer industry has spent millions of dollars making it as easy as possible to get into their product. Yet what do we do? We say, 'Here’s our product, now go out and spend five dollars on a tool to open it.' And then the cork breaks or it falls in.' Or, even worse: the wine turns out to be tainted by the cork, rendering it completely undrinkable.

Jeffrey Grosset ith glass of Cooper's Pale seated outside The Rising Sun, Auburn, Clare Valley, South Australia c. 2000

Jeffrey Grosset outside The Rising Sun in Auburn*. Pic by Tim White.

Which is the primary reason why the Clare Valley winemakers have moved to the Stelvin screw cap this year: they are fed up with the pristine, limey, zesty, spring-water pure smell and taste of their finest rieslings being marred by the imperfections of natural cork [and the production processes involved].

Perhaps the worst type of cork taint — ‘cork effect’ better describes it — is the kind which doesn't really jump up your nose, but instead has the effect of moderately flattening the wine. Not so much a discernable smell, more like a character which takes the edge off a wine's high points. A good example of this, several good examples in fact, were presented to me earlier in the year when I bought a couple of cases of Petaluma's brilliant 1999 riesling - which some may recall I have previously reviewed.

As the first box of the Petaluma riesling ended up getting opened — with a quite expensive tool — and consumed almost within a week of receiving it, I got the opportunity to taste a dozen bottles in pretty quick succession. It is no exaggeration to say that at least half of the case tasted differently to the wine I had reviewed and fallen in love with. None were obviously cork tainted, that is showing a strong musty character, but there were varying levels of brilliance. Some of the bottles tasted like the colour switch had been turned down: the flavour of the aroma and flavour of the wine lost its saturation.

This would not have occurred (or would have been less likely) if the wine had been sealed with the Stelvin closure, the technology for which was developed in France around thirty years ago. Wines have been bottled 'under Stelvin' before in Australia, Yalumba's Pewsey Vale rieslings of the seventies being notable examples, but the idea didn't catch on with the consumer and the initiative had a negative impact on the winery. Today's wine lover is different, however: far more informed I’d suggest about wine, wine quality, and packaging issues such as cork taint.

''Only 15% of my customers have opted for cork and I'm now having to supply the Sydney restaurant trade with cork sealed bottles because I've run out of Stelvin. That's really surprised me.” Jeffrey Grosset.

Winemaker Jeffrey Grosset, in my view the top producer of Clare riesling for most of the past decade, elected to bottle 80% of his 2000 Watervale and Polish Hill wines under Stelvin and the remainder with cork. He has been keeping detailed records of his mail order and cellar door sales since he launched the wines a month ago and has been surprised at the reception of the screw tops, ''After I've been through everything and explained to the customer why we are doing what we are doing I give them the option to have the wine with either cork or Stelvin. Only 15% of my customers have opted for cork and I'm now having to supply the Sydney restaurant trade with cork sealed bottles because I've run out of Stelvin. That's really surprised me.'

Some Clare Valley makers have opted to bottle their entire riesling vintage under Stelvin, producers such as Mount Horrocks and Mitchell, while others have been more conservative. Eldredge Vineyards bottled 1/3 of its 1000 case production with the screw cap closure. 'Some customers grab the Stelvin, some the cork, ' Leigh Eldredge told me. 'But what I have noticed, even just a few weeks after the bottling, is that the cork sealed wines appear more advanced.'

Eldredge's observations were confirmed at a tasting of 33 Clare Valley rieslings set up for me at Leasingham's winery in Clare. I looked at both cork and Stelvin sealed bottles of the same wines plus a few other conventionally sealed wines from the 2000 vintage. Both the cork-sealed and Stelvin sealed versions of Eldredge's riesling were excellent, but the cork sealed was just a bit plumper and fatter at this early stage in its life. Others which smelt and tasted pretty much the same were Grosset's Polish Hill and The Wilson Vineyard wine.

But the differences between the two bottlings of Grosset's Watervale and Knappstein's Hand Picked were significant. Both the Grosset and Knappstein under Stelvin had more intensity and more life. The corks in both wines had flattened the wines to the extent that I'd written 'tastes flat' in both cases. So while the tasting showed (to me) that a good cork remains a sound proposition; it also demonstrated (to me) that the Stelvin seal was the more reliable of the two. To be honest, this is what I'd expected to discover.

Some more context. The Clare Valley ’20 vintage was a difficult one. First, hail destroyed a significant amount of the potential crop and then windy weather in spring caused indifferent fruit set. Summer was hallmarked by several severe bouts of heat which caused sunburn and shrivelling. Many growers had to laboriously pick around damaged and raisinned berries in order to harvest sound fruit. Those that had any fruit that is, as the Clare Valley harvest was just 50% of projections and 2/3s that of last year. Even more care and attention than normal was lavished in the winery too.

The result of this attention to detail are some fabulous wines which when bottled under Stelvin are guaranteed to be free from taint and more likely to taste — and evolve — consistently from bottle to bottle. Which is how — some — winemakers want their wines to be. Now that is 'user friendly'.

*Footnote: There were six pairs of riesling — Stelvin and natural cork sealed — included in this tasting on 3rd October 2000 from the following producers: Eldredge, Grosset (both Polish Hill and Springvale — nee. Watervale), Jim Barry, Taylors, and The Wilson Vineyard. Single bottles sealed under Stelvin were included in the line-up from Mitchell, Leasingham, Clos Clare, Mount Horrocks, Olssen, Stephen John, Stringy Brae, Tim Gramp, and Taylor’s.

My understanding is that of all the above producers only Mitchell, Clos Clare, Leasingham, Taylors, and Mount Horrocks bottled their entire 2000 Riesling vintage under screwcap, specifically the brand Stelvin. Mitchell really took the lead and bottled their entire vintage under screwcap. In the history of screwcap in Australia, Mitchell showed no fear, and have no peer.

*Image footnote: This photograph was taken around the time of the launch of the ’Stelvin Initiative’ Clare rieslings, so c. 2000. I’ve no metadata for the image, but I’d written in the caption “...maker of two of Australia's most respected contemporary rieslings: Polish Hill & Watervale. Both now sealed with screwcaps."