Tyrrell’s goes screw cap

Bruce Tyrrell rolled through town last week presenting new-release Tyrrell’s private bin wines to local collectors. Later, he hosted a terrific retrospective tasting of Hunter Vat 1 semillon, Vat 47 chardonnay and Vat 9 shiraz at Tasso Rououlis’s Benchmark Wine Bar.

The wines, from Dennis O’Connor’s cellar, revealed the idiosyncrasies of the lower Hunter Valley; the vagaries of weather conditions back to 1991; and, of course, the Tyrrell mastery of these lovely regional styles – a subject touched upon in last week’s column.

During the tasting we learned, too, of an impending switch from cork to screw caps on all of the Tyrrell top-end wines from the 2004 vintage. Tyrrell says he’s had enough of cork failure, a particularly big problem for a company that encourages extended ageing of its wines and regularly re-releases back vintages.

It’s not cork taint so much”, said Bruce, “but random oxidation that’s the biggest problem”. In a recent inspection of 4000 dozen bottles of white wine from the 1986 to 1996 vintages, Bruce and his team tipped 600 dozen down the drain – not through any inherent wine problem, but because some of the corks had simply failed to provide a barrier against air. That’s random oxidation.

But the problem is not limited to white wine. It’s just that in whites it’s more obviously manifested in a too deep colour, dull, flat aroma and flat, drying-out palate. Reds suffer, too. But often unless the drinker is familiar with a wine and knows what it should taste like – or happens to have two bottles open, one good, one bad – the problem is less apparent.

Bruce and his winemaker, Andrew Spinaze, commenced trialing alternative closures in the mid eighties, initially testing a range of synthetic plugs on the flagship Vat 1 semillon – chosen for its delicacy and capacity for long-term ageing.

Spinaze says that after three months in bottle all samples, including those under cork, smelled and tasted the same. But after 18 months all of the synthetics had failed while the cork delivered its usual variable quality – some wines perfect, some not bad, some oxidised and some cork tainted.

From1998 Spinaze began sealing a portion of Vat 1 semillon under screw cap. The performance of these wines against cork-sealed bottles precipitated the decision to change.

Says Spinaze, “We were always aware of cork’s shortcomings. But we had some reservations about how our top wines would age with the alternative. We knew they would be different. And they are. But the cork failure rate is too high”.

The decision followed two important tastings this year, one in Canberra, one in the Hunter.

In Canberra, Bruce and Andrew joined Lester Jesberg, Len Sorbello and Ray Wilson of Winewise, a highly respected independent wine periodical, in a tasting of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and Futures semillons from the 1986 to 2002 vintages. Tyrrell and Spinaze brought along screw-cap sealed samples of the 1998 and 2000 vintages to compare with Winewise’s cork-sealed samples.

Jesberg recalls that for some vintages several cork-sealed bottles had to be opened to find a good one. In the end, though, it was the screw cap sealed 1998 that blew everyone away.

A few months later in the Hunter, Tyrrell and Spinaze presented eight masked bottles of the 1998 Vat 1 Semillon – four screw-cap sealed, four cork sealed — to judges at the local wine show.

Cork fared poorly: one bore the unpleasant musty notes of cork taint; one was badly oxidised; one was slightly oxidised but pleasant and one was spectacularly good.

All four screw-cap wines opened in perfect condition. But, says Spinaze, some tasters, himself included, favoured the style of the best cork-sealed wine by a tiny margin. Others disagreed. However, the concessus was that the screw cap sealed wines were not only outstanding and ageing well but utterly reliable and indistinguishable from bottle to bottle.

So, says Andrew, “the question had become why wouldn’t we put them in”. Hence, the screw-cap roll out to Tyrrell’s very best wines began recently with ‘Stevens’ Semillon 2004 (a wine released at five years’ age), moved on to the Vat 1 Semillon 2004 and embraced the legendary Vat 47 Chardonnay 2004 late last week. And, Bruce assured me at the Benchmark Wine Bar tasting, all of the 2004 Private Bin reds are getting screw caps, too.

Murray Flannigan, well known smiling face of Tyrrell’s Private Bin Club, reports strong, if not unanimous, support for the move amongst collectors in his own straw poll.

As more leading producers abandon cork, the question becomes is the screw cap perfect? The answer is no. But it’s the best alternative to date. And its acceptance opens the door for other innovative solutions. Where are they all?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004
First published 3 October 2004 in the Canberra Times