A decade of screwcaps pays off for riesling drinkers

Chateau Shanahan’s in the grip of a severe riesling addiction. Our pleasure comes reliably and economically. And it’s a direct result of Australia’s dramatic switch from cork to screwcap – precipitated in 1999 by a group of determined Clare Valley riesling makers.

Thanks to winemaker Jeffrey Grosset and his Clare Valley mates we’re all enjoying better, fresher wines of every style every day. And if, like Chateau Shanahan, you began tossing a few cases of screw-capped Aussie rieslings under the house ten years ago you’ll understand our excitement.

Over the last few months we’ve snapped the caps off every vintage from 1998 on. We’ve particularly enjoyed those from 2003 and earlier. And though the styles vary from maker to maker and year-to-year, the best share a delicious combination of mature flavours with shimmering freshness.

What’s also coming through is that inexpensive wines from the right regions and makers often cellar well. A good example is Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 2002, bought for around $10 in late 2002.
It’s a wine we’ve always regarded as deliciously undervalued, so there’s a few vintages of it on hand, including the 1997, which is cork sealed. And therein lies a little-known screw cap story that precedes the Clare Valley initiative by one year.

It involves John Vickery, perhaps our most influential riesling maker ever, a team of like-minded makers at Orlando (owners of Richmond Grove) and a few people from the then Coles-Myer-owned Liquorland group.

In April 1997 Vickery conducted tastings of his rieslings back to the 1963 vintage for a handful of fortunate media and the trade at the Richmond Grove Winery, Tanunda. (To read about the tasting search for ‘Riesling master John Vickery unveils a life’s work’ on this site).

The best were magnificent. But John lamented the damage caused by corks, saying that he’d had to open many bottles of some vintages to find one good one. By then he was advocating a return to screw caps, a practice that had been abandoned by winemakers after commercial trials in the late seventies. Though drinkers had rejected screw caps, the seal had subsequently proven itself to be highly effective over the ensuing decades.

Immediately after the tasting, the Coles Myer people negotiated with Orlando to have 1,000 cases each of Richmond Grove’s Watervale and Barossa Rieslings sealed under screwcap from the 1998 vintage.

Coles Myer duly launched the wines Australia wide through its Vintage Cellars wine club magazine, Cellar Press, explaining the benefits to its readers.

Drinkers embraced the idea. And the launch sparked a reaction from other retailers demanding the Richmond Grove rieslings under screw cap. But as Orlando had sealed all but the Coles Myer portion under cork they couldn’t oblige. The exercise, however, demonstrated that the screw cap was an idea whose time had come.

However, it wasn’t embraced universally at first. Some sceptics, including the late Len Evans, felt that wine, and especially red wines, wouldn’t mature properly under screw cap. Others lamented the loss of the ‘romantic’ associations of pulling a cork.

And though the uptake for white wines was rapid, there were teething problems. Some of the early bottlings of riesling and, later, red wines, developed smelly sulphide compounds -– a problem of reduction (lack of oxygen) that could be fixed (and was) by more attentive winemaking.

As well, screw caps could be damaged by direct impact and by being on the top layer of the bottom palate of a three-palate-high stack – both of which could break the airtight seal. But these and other glitches were minor and largely manageable problems, especially when compared to the high failure rate of cork over time.

Of riesling taken from the Chateau Shanahan cellar in the past year or so, we’ve found, for example, that to get one really good bottle of the highly prized, cork-sealed 1997 Orlando Steingarten Riesling, we have to open five bottles. Of those one will be corked or so oxidised that’s it’s not much fun to drink, three will be OK, but dull and one bouncing with life.

We’ve found the same, too, with the cork-sealed 1997 Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling. On the other hand, we’ve had no failures (and lots of pleasure) from numerous screw cap sealed Richmond Grove rieslings from 1998 on.

Other memorable, aged-but-fresh, screw cap bottles enjoyed recently include Petaluma Hanlin Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2003, St Hallett Eden Valley Riesling 2002 and 2003, Leo Buring Eden Valley Riesling 2003, Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling 2001, Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling 2005 and Tim Adams Clare Valley Riesling 2003.

This experience suggests that the advent of the screw cap makes riesling perhaps the safest, cheapest and most interesting of Australia’s cellaring wines. It’s all about drinking pleasure in the end. You have to choose the right wines – not all riesling will cellar (your wine retailer could point to a few, and these days that’d include several Canberra District wines).

And you have to keep them somewhere cool and dark. A typical under-the-house Canberra storeroom – annual temperature range from 10 degrees to 20 degrees Celsius – seems fine for ten years or so. That’s all we have. But if you have controlled temperature storage at around 16 degrees constant, the best rieslings should cellar for many decades. My favourite of the Vickery 1997 tastings, for example, was from the 1972 vintage.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009