Cork v3.0 – Cork Fights Back

Cork oaks with their trunks stripped – photo courtesy of Diam.

The cork or screw cap debate is getting interesting again – click here for an article that I wrote about it quite a few years ago. For many years I, along with many in the British wine trade, have long championed the use of screw cap over cork.

My main reason for doing so is that for a long time we had far too high a proportion of bottles that were corked. This happens when a cork is infected by a compound called trichloroanisole, TCA for short, and that gets passed on to the wine in the bottle, killing the fruit in the wine and making it smell and taste musty like mouldy cardboard.

A compelling second reason to favour screw caps is that with corks there is a significant amount of bottle variation as some give a better seal than others, so little bit of oxidation can occur making some bottles seem less vibrant and more muted than others.

Screwcaps do not get rid of all of this, it is possible to get TCA into a wine by another route, so I have had 4 ‘corked’ bottles sealed with screw caps. That is 4 in over 20 years though. By comparison my record for corked wine that was sealed with corks was 6 bottles from a single case on a single day!

I also like the glass closures, they look very classy and I think if I made wine that is what I would choose. The rather more funky  Zork closure is rather good too, especially for sparkling wine.  It makes a noise like a cork popping and you can reseal it.

However, many people are more traditional than me and like to cling to things because they are used to them or sometimes because they think they are best and so cork is still used to seal the majority of wine bottles.

In the 10 years from 2006 to 2106 the use of cork has dropped from 78% of closures to 61%, so it is still the dominant material. In that time screw caps have grown from just 5% to 26%. If those figures seem low to you, outside of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, cork is considered superior and screwcaps are widely viewed as suitable only for the cheapest wines.

The tops of various types of cork.

Well cork seems to be fighting back and the charge is lead by a new form of cork that manages to get round the traditional problems that cork has.

Natural cork.

Most of you will be able to picture a traditional cork, that is a cylinder of cork stamped out a single piece of cork oak bark. Being a single piece if it is contaminated by TCA, this will infect the wine.

Agglomerate cork.

Agglomerate cork was an attempt to get around that by making the cork out of lots of tiny pieces of cork glued together. However these are usually considered less suitable for ageing wine as there is almost no oxygen ingress, or trickle of oxygen through the cork, to age the wine. In addition they are less pliable than natural cork, so again less suitable for long term ageing.

Synthetic cork.

Synthetic corks have certainly proved to be effective for early drinking wines. The risk of TCA infection is almost completely removed, unless TCA gets into the wine via wood or filter pads or by another route – this can also happen with screw cap wines, but it is rare. However many of them can harden over a relatively short time, making them less effective and allowing air into the wine. Added to which they are really difficult to get off the corkscrew once you have removed them from the bottle. In my opinion these are really only suitable for early drinking wines, but a screw cap would be a better seal and preserve the fresh character of the wine and the fruit much better.

Recently I was invited to France to tour a cork factory that belongs to a company that is changing everything – that company is Diam.

A Diam 3 cork.

Basically Diam manufacture a type of agglomerate cork, but a very high tech and high quality one. I cannot pretend to understand the science, but basically they harvest high quality cork, season it outside for up to 12 months, just as natural cork would be. They then wash it and crush it into granules which are then filtered to remove foreign bodies and the woody parts. This leaves them with pure suberin, which unlike lesser cork is inert. This substance undergoes a similar process to the one that removes caffeine from coffee, which removes all impurities from the cork granules, they actually store the TCA that they remove as it can be used in the manufacture of some skin creams – so the next time auntie smells of cork taint, perhaps she hasn’t been drinking! The gaps between the cork granules are filled with microspheres which increases the elasticity of the finished cork. They are then bound together with a food grade binding agent before being moulded, machined and finished to the correct size and finish.

They tell me that with their process there is no risk of TCA, the cork is pliable enough to ensure there is minimal risk of premature oxidation – which makes Diam corks particularly popular in Burgundy – and stops bottle variation as they perform consistently.

If you look at the Diam cork above, you will see in the bottom right it says Diam 3, they actually make Diam 2, Diam 3, Diam 5, Diam 10 and Diam 30 for still wines, the number tells you how long they guarantee the cork for. They also make sparkling wine corks and spirit stopper corks.

An unused Diam 5.

It was a fascinating visit. The factory floor was almost entirely unmanned, with robotic machines doing all the work. The whole place had a rather wonderful toasty, malty, toffee, caramel sort of smell which is what the corks smell of when still warm.

Our little group on the factory floor and yes that is Charles Metcalfe in the centre. I reached the conclusion that the protective clothing was a French joke as none of the management wore it!

Diam corks are tested for their elasticity as they want them to be as pliable as possible. This elastic property ensures that they give a perfect seal and apparently do not need to be kept damp – so if you know it has a Diam cork you do not need to lie it down, or so Diam say.

Diam Origine.

Diam have been around since 2005 and their share of the market keeps rising, their share of the cork market has risen from a very healthy 4% in 2006 to 10% 10 years later. And by the way that 10% represents 1.3 billion corks a year!

Now they have launched an organic version called Diam Origine. Initially this will just be in a Diam 10 and a Diam 30 version, but more will follow. The organic corks uses beeswax emulsion and a binding agent made from plants and I expect that we will begin to see them used on more and more organic and biodynamic wines.

The Pic du Canigou from Diam’s factory near Collioure in the Roussillon region of France.

It was a very different visit from my normal wine trips, but it was very interesting and informative and the weather was gorgeous, the only lovely weather I have had this year so far. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard and feel much more confident about cork now than I have for a long time, as long as it is Diam.

It’s just a pity that you cannot tell whether the wine is sealed with a Diam cork before you buy it. Perhaps they ought to find a way of letting us know before we part with our money?

 

 

 

A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.