A Defense of Real Cork

I am very interested in wine. This is partly my parents’ fault, since they are also very interested in wine, and I grew up with it at the dinner table every night. But they weren’t just interested in drinking it: my father especially is fairly knowledgeable about how wines are made and labeled (no small subject of inquiry). Following in his footsteps, I myself have recently begun to investigate the ancient art of fermenting grapes into a drinkable beverage. And I have found it very intriguing.

I should be very clear here. I find that knowing about wine is almost as fun as drinking wine. I don’t mean the pretentious knowledge about, say, which wine labels are better than others, or which wines can be correctly paired with what kinds of foods–that sort of “knowledge” is, in my experience, largely a result of one person trying to appear better than others. It is, essentially, condescension. I am not interested in that. I am interested in discovering where certain wines come from and how they (hopefully) reflect their origins. I am interested in attempts, both old and new, to make a better wine by combining various grapes. I am interested in the fermenting process, the aging process, and most of all in the finished product. I am interested because I think it truly is a craft, just like making fine furniture or painting pictures.

I am, for example, fascinated that champagne was developed as a desperate bid to make marketable wine from the Champagne region of France, which apparently has very poor natural conditions and soil (from a winemaking perspective). The medieval monk Dom Perignon was one of the chief engineers of sparkling wine, and his name is immortalized now as the label of a very famous champagne. Likewise interesting is the fact that Riesling winemakers will leave a portion of their grapes on the vine past the first harvest so they will ripen further. This is a risk in Germany, when autumn frosts come early and hard. But the longer the grapes are left on the vine, the sweeter, more ageworthy, and more flavorful are the wines made from them. And even if the grapes freeze, they can be made into a very sweet wine called Eiswine (“Icewine”).

Such examples of winemaking illustrate the painstaking care and ingenuity that goes into producing the bottle of wine that I choose to drink. And that makes drinking the wine a Romantic experience–not romantic in the sense of being appropriate to two people who are in love, but rather in the sense of being “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized.” A bottle of wine made with care should represent both the place it came from and the intent of the winemaker who created it. It can produce an astounding variety of flavors and even enhance the flavor of the food we eat while drinking it. Above all, like any great endeavor of human ingenuity, it should inspire us.

The English author Evelyn Waugh recognized this, and in the novel Brideshead Revisited, during a darkly amusing and depressing dinner with an excessively practical, grasping, manipulative man named Rex Mottram, the main character muses:

Those were the kind of things he [Rex] heard, mortal illness and debt, I thought. [But] I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again…in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as…with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

So perhaps it is easy to see why I have been sorry to see the intrusion of wax synthetic corks and plastic screwtops into the world of wine. It isn’t that I refuse to recognize the benefits of these technological advancements: cork taint, or the intrusion of molds and bad flavor into the wine from the cork, is one of the oldest and most consistent problems with wine bottling. In fact, when the waiter at a restaurant pours a little wine into the glass for you to taste before the wine is served, it isn’t so the you can decide if you like the wine. It’s so you can be satisfied you are getting a wine untainted by the cork. Without question, synthetic corks and screwtops largely eliminate this problem. Furthermore, as both substitutes are less porous than cork, they help wines age better. Nevertheless, the quality of the cork is one among many unknowns that make wine drinking such a romantic experience.

When holding a bottle of wine in my hand, I feel great anticipation. The bottle, cork and all, holds the promise of new flavors and experiences. The fact that it may turn out either very good or simply mediocre (or even unpalatable) heightens the anticipation. The particular ceremony required to open the wine–peeling the foil, inserting the corkscrew, and extracting the cork (hopefully without leaving bits of cork in the wine) all further contribute to that anticipation. And synthetic corks (especially screwtops), while they may eliminate the possibility of cork taint and bad extractions, also kill some of this anticipation.

I am sad, then, to hear more and more winemakers are switching over from real cork. I will miss the satisfying pop! that heralds the opening of a wine bottle, and examining the stamped and stained cork itself as a prelude to tasting the wine. Hopefully a few winemakers, at least, will retain the risk and the reward of using real cork — and the soul-satisfying act of opening (and tasting!) a new bottle of wine will retain its magic for old-fashioned romantics like me.