A Return to Cork
“Ten years ago, Michel Laroche, then majority owner of Domaine Laroche in Chablis, made the decision to bottle his entire range of wines, including premiers and grands crus, with screwcaps.
“’As winemakers, we try to avoid oxidation,’ Laroche said at the time. ‘Even without TCA [the chemical that can produce moldy flavors via tainted corks], a cork is not neutral. With a fresh, delicate style of wine like Chablis, the cork marks it quickly, like a little spot on a white shirt.’
“Laroche had armed himself with research from Australia, a pioneer in the use of screwcap closures, in addition to experimentation with his own wines. In May 2005, I attended a tasting conducted by Laroche at which seven pairs of his Chablis were poured, each pair bottled at the same time, one with cork and one with screwcap. In the majority of pairings, I preferred the richness in texture and added length from the bottles with cork.
“Now, Laroche’s technical director, Gregory Viennois, has returned to cork closures for its Chablis. ‘Oxygen is not a problem,’ Viennois says. ‘We need oxygen for a wine to be alive. But it’s a question of the quantity of oxygen and when. I think with a good cork selection we have the right combination of oxygen and we have a slow evolution in the wines. I think that’s why we like to open old bottles. We have a new combination of molecules and new aromas, and we have the incredible mystery and aging of fine wines.’
“Viennois cites multiple changes in the past 10 years at Laroche that influenced his decision: changes in the vineyards, changes in the cellar and increased knowledge of the bottling process. Viennois has lowered yields and instituted sustainable farming practices, with the result being better quality fruit. He has also invested in several new, smaller presses so individual blocks can be pressed separately. A strict selection in the vineyards at harvest also ensures the best grapes.
“’We don’t use enzymes, we keep all the good lees and cloudy juice before and after decantation to extract all the mineral and phenolic components from the skins,’ Viennois explains. ‘These are natural elements from the vineyards that protect the wines from oxidation.’
“Old vines in particular produce thick skins and provide these good elements at low pressure, without too much mechanical action. Fermentation takes place in oak, but the aging finishes in stainless steel. This allows Viennois and his team to age the wines longer (14 months for the grands crus) and keep them on the lees for protection against oxidation.
“This protection continues at bottling. ‘Our knowledge of the problem of premox [premature oxidation] evolved a lot in the last 10 years,’ he says. ‘We can analyze how much oxygen is dissolved at each stage of the process.’ The bottles are also injected with nitrogen so there is no oxygen in contact with the wine.
“According to Viennois, the cork industry has also changed over the past decade, researching the origin and production of cork and enhancing quality control measures. Producers now have the technology to check each cork for problems. Laroche does the same in its cellar before bottling.
“’We know all the molecules responsible for cork taint, so we can check for chat. We also soak corks in water and caste for any problems. I think it’s important for stable development [of the wines] because cork is a natural material.’
“During the past year, I blind-tasted Domaine Laroche Chablis from both the 2012 and 2013 vintages. The ‘12s were finished with screwcaps; the ’13s with cork. I gave a slight edge to the 2013s, despite 2012 being a better overall vintage. Yet to truly evaluate the differences between the two closures, the wines need a few more years of aging.
“Viennois says these young wines wouldn’t be different in their evolution at this stage, but the screwcap versions would smell more reductive, like sulfites at worst or like a flinty, smoky character at best. (Reduction consumes oxygen, slowing or preventing a wine’s aging process.) ‘You find reductive aromas with screwcaps. We have a fixation of the reduction, and there is no evolution.’
“When I made the comparative tasting with Michel Laroche in 2005, I preferred the wines under cork, just as I did in the most recent vintages. Like any other wine lover, I’m disappointed when I open an old bottle only to find it tainted. But based on what I’ve tasted, I’ll continue to take my chances with cork.”