An American, Australian and Briton walked into a wine bar. Could be the start of a shaggy dog story, but this is about the different perceptions of wine seen by the three nationalities
Yes, it’s the controversial topic of wine closures. What we all want is the wine inside the bottle, but how that wine is perceived – and whether it will be purchased – is affected by the thing we need to remove and throw away in order to pour the wine.
There are three main closures.
- Cork – the traditional closure that is cut from bark of a tree
- Screwcap – a metal roll-on closure invented in 1856
- Synthetic – a recent plastic seal in use for just 20 years.
And the three nationalities have considerable differences of opinion about closures, according to some recent surveys*.
Americans prefer cork and dislike screwcaps which are considered a sign of a poor quality wine. Australians prefer screwcaps, nearly all their wines have screwcaps and they dislike corks. British feelings about corks haven’t changed but acceptance of screwcaps has increased dramatically. US consumers much prefer synthetic closures to screwcaps, while its the other way round for Australians and Britons who have a low opinion of them.
There is a marked difference in who decides which closure is used for which market. It was wineries that pushed for screwcaps in Australia. Many felt they were the end of the line for corks grown in Europe and were getting ones everyone else had rejected. In the UK it was supermarkets who demanded screwcaps from their suppliers. Supermarkets are by far the major retail outlet for wine and they didn’t want customers returning faulty wines. In the USA consumer is king; the consumer likes corks and it takes a brave importer or winery not to ship wines with corks.
When major New Zealand winery Villa Maria bottled its premium wines in screwcaps they lost their listing at a US seafood chain. Many wineries use corks for exports to the USA and screwcaps elsewhere. Some people have suggested that the US tipping culture means sommeliers want to show they are earning their tip with the cork-removal ritual. In New Zealand where waiters don’t expect tips they’re happy to twist off the screwcaps which close 97% of their wines.
The survey shows younger American drinkers are more open to screwcaps and acceptance rates are slowly rising, but that is from a very low base.
Synthetic corks are the default choice of some large American wineries who don’t want to risk cork faults but can’t sell screwcaps. When a capsule is placed on the bottle no one can tell the closure is plastic.
South Africa used to be the biggest user of synthetic closures, I have just returned from four weeks there and I encountered just one. So many wines had screwcaps that I had to remember where I’d left my corkscrew when I came to a cork. Chain restaurant listed mostly screwcapped wines which are especially useful when there are so many inexperienced staff.
Will the USA reach a tipping point where screwcaps become accepted? Neither retailers nor wineries are pushing for them so they remain a stranger to many American consumers. Its only when you’ve experienced twisting the cap off good wines that it becomes unremarkable.
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* Surveys covering period from Mar 2007 to Mar 2011 by Wine Intelligence and Tragon Corporation