Cork and Plastic

As the debate over how we’re going to keep our precious wine inside the bottle continues, a very curious story recently ran in a New Zealand news magazine called The Listener. It claimed, without any evidence adduced, that screwcaps are linked to higher incidences of breast and prostate cancers – caused, said the piece, by the plastic seal inside the cap.

The story was rapidly exposed as lacking any scientific validity and the author as an anti-screwcap lobbyist. At the same time, the expectable ripple of paranoia raced through the nation. New Zealand bottles nearly 80% of its wine under screwcap, so producers were quick to release statements reassuring drinkers of its safety and reasserting their intention to continue to seal their wines this way.

These producers made it clear that there is no causal link between the substance in the liner and any human health risk, the plastic being certified as inert food grade packaging. Less inert plastics in our food chain are potentially another matter, as are the tonnes of plastic waste that end up floating in huge tangles of industrial colour in our oceans. Like many of us, I would prefer an eco-sensitive solution, something recyclable would be ideal and if the recycling was motivated by reward even better.

Completely natural, cork just continues to let me down. Not just in the wines opened that are clearly TCA tainted and make the wine smell and taste chemical; but also in wines that are simply very flat, robbed of their heartbeat. Only after a few minutes of standing open does the tell-tale TCA smell begin to manifest itself.

How many bottles are afflicted by this cork-borne problem at a level that is not easily sensed, but enough to ruin the wine? I feel for the cork industry, since this problem was not created by them. The chlorides that end up as TCA compounds are in our environment as a result of earlier actions, including spraying programs, which we didn’t understand the long-term implications of.

Of course, this is where the use of new materials, like plastics, is still open to debate and investigation, but responsibly. To point a finger at a small seal made of plastic when the majority of food we consume (in far greater quantities) is sealed in plastic simply reeks of other agendas.

Still, it is remarkable how problematic containing our wine is! I look forward to the day when the attention is only on the stuff in the bottle. The challenge we have with wine is that there is tradition (bottle and cork) and there is a liquid which is remarkably sensitive, not only to spoilage, but also the relentless effects of age.