"Bartender, bartender! My wine smells like farts!"
No, this wasn't a George Carlin routine.
It was me (and my not so inner wine nerd) as I sat at a bar at one of Houston's most swank joints, waiting to be seated for dinner.
Honestly, I wasn't surprised that my wine smelled like a fart: It came from a bottle sealed with a screw cap.
Wines contained in bottles with screw-cap closures, when first opened, often smell like "rotten eggs, garlic, struck flint, cabbage, rubber, and burnt rubber," to borrow some descriptors from Master of Wine (and my favorite wine writer) Jancis Robinson. I can't imagine that she would ever use the word fart to describe a wine. She is British, after all. But you get the smell... ahem... idea.
Although the technicians of wine can't entirely agree on why this happens, it's generally believed that the phenomenon is due to reduction -- in other words, the absence of oxygen in winemaking. (As Jancis points out in her excellent Oxford Companion to Wine, the term is "convenient, but rather inaccurate"; nonetheless, it has become part of the contemporary wine parlance.)
"Reduction is kind of like the male libido," winemaker Randall Gram once told me. "It's not pretty," said the wine industry icon, owner and founder of Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz, California), "but it lets us know that everything's working correctly."
Grahm famously pronounced the cork "dead" in 2002 when he decided to abandon the traditional closure in favor of screw caps. At the time, the move was considered controversial and even untenable.
Even just five years ago, as Eric Asimov noted in The New York Times, screw caps and "screw cap taint" (aka reduction) posed a number of challenges for winemakers.
"Screw caps versus corks?" he punned. "It's all in the air."
Today screw caps are common place, especially when it comes to fresh white wines intended to be consumed in their youth, like the Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio (above) that my bartender served me by the glass the other night.
The good news is that the "off" aromas caused by reduction in screw cap bottles will generally "blow off" with a just a few minutes of aeration. While the Felluga initially reminded me of my nearly twelve-month-old daughter's early-morning toots, the funk quickly gave way to the fresh white fruit notes on the nose of this excellent, value-driven expression of Pinot Grigio from Friuli (and one of my favorites for the price-quality ratio).
The even better news is that the use of screw caps is helping the over-cropped cork trade. We still need naturally produced corks for long-term-aging wines: The bark of the cork tree still provides winemakers and bottlers with the ideal organically porous seal for wines that require gentle oxygenation over long periods of time.
Screw caps also allow winemakers to use less sulfur during bottling and helps them to preserve freshness and brilliance in the wine's fruit flavors.
The best news is that screw caps, now more common than ever, eliminate the cork taint and oxidation problems found in up to one in eight bottles of cork-sealed wine.
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They also make the bottles a lot easier to open, a feature that really comes in handy when you're entertaining at home or when you're a restaurant professional who finds her/himself "in the weeds" behind a bar and needs to open a bottle of wine swiftly and seamlessly.