“All major fine-wine producers should be setting up long-term experiments to ascertain how well their wines age under screwcap.”
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So where and when did the screwcap movement actually start ? Australia in 2000 ? New Zealand in 2001 ? In actual fact, neither. The real birth of this movement dates back over 40 years ago when Peter Wall, Production Director of Yalumba contacted French manufacturer, Le Bouchon Mecanique in a quest to eradicate cork taint in his wines and preserve their freshness !
Screwcaps have been used on food products since the middle of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1959 when Le Bouchon Mecanique (presentday Alcan) created a screwcap that was specially adapted for wine bottles. However, whilst the French lead the way in the manufacturing of screwcaps, their commercial use was limited due to consumer reticence.
By the 1980s, screwcaps were widely used in Switzerland and in just over 15 years the Swiss wine industry bottled 60 million of its bottles under screwcaps, however the consumer still associated this closure with medium priced, litre bottles.
It wasn’t until 2000 when a pioneering group of winemakers in the Clare Valley decided to adopt this modern seal for their premium wines, that screwcaps gained widespread commercial acceptance. Led by Jeffrey Grosset, their Rieslings were sealed using Stelvin closures and a specially designed bottle from SaverGlass – both French companies.
This captured the attention of a number of winemakers in New Zealand, particularly in Marlborough, where, due to increased cork related problems, research was already underway for a viable alternative.
As Brajkovich explains,
“As far as alternatives go, screwcaps were always at the top of my list. I studied Oenology at Roseworthy College in South Australia from 1979-1981, where our Head of School was Dr Bryce Rankine. In his previous position with the Australian Wine Research Institute, Dr Rankine had been part of a study into screwcap closures as an alternative to cork. The papers were published back in 1980 and 1981*, so as students we were very aware of the ability of screwcap closures to perform very well.”
The movement gained further momentum in February 2001. During a meeting, sponsored by Marloborough winemakers, the screwcap seal was identified as the most promising alternative to cork. The meeting delegated the task of investigating the technical viability of screwcap wine seals to a Technical Committee of three experienced winemakers.
Dave Pearce - capsules,
John Belsham - bottles,
Dave Knappstein - application machinery
This was done in liaison with the appropriate industry participants, including suppliers.
In parallel, a number of New Zealand winemakers from outside Marlborough were also investigating the new closure, therefore, in a logical evolution, they joined forces to create the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative which successfully pooled resources to assist with trade and consumer education and ensure that winemakers had all the technical information necessary to achieve the best results with this closure.
Whilst it was acknowledged that the decision to use screwcaps would fly in the face of tradition and could potentially lead to customer resistance, however, winemakers knew that this was a daring step that had to me made to ensure the quality of their wines. It cannot be stressed enough that this decision was made for quality reasons, not economics. The move to screwcaps requires a significant financial investment in specialised capping equipment.
The first commercial release of a NZ wine under screwcap was by Kim Crawford, and this was followed very quickly be a large number of others like Lawsons Dry Hills, Jackson Estate and most notably Villa Maria, who became one of the biggest wine producers to turn 100% to screwcaps. However, the real interest with this movement isn’t who was first, rather than fact that so many companies decided to do the same thing at the same time.
At the time of going to press, conservative estimates of wines bottled under screwcaps represent 85% and 45% in New Zealand and Australia respectively.
It is, therefore, fitting that a movement that was born out of international co-operation from the very beginning, should now evolve into a global initiative uniting pioneering winemakers from the four corners of the globe. In the closing speech of the International Screwcap Symposium in Blenheim in November 2004, John Belsham confirmed the creation of the International Screwcap Initiative (ISI) that would incorporate Jeff Grosset as Vice President and Michel Laroche as European representative.
The newly formed ISI is a
non-profit making association of like-minded winemakers
with and a
attitude and a common goal to improve the perception of screwcaps. We endeavour to provide the wine-drinking public with the information necessary to understand that the use of screwcaps is the result of a qualitative decision and not an economic one.
We are independent of any government organisation or screwcap manufacturer.
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