This week, participants at the EWBC are being encouraged to take a look at a common issue from the perspective of their blog/audience/country so we can start a more open, international debate. Visit the EWBC site for more details and see other submissions on the same topic

Dinastia Vivanco Rioja Wine CorkThe issue of closures is one that rages on and on and gets some people a little hot under the collar. Let me point out, therefore, that what I am about to say is a personal view, not one that necessarily is shared by any of the wineries I represent.

As someone who works in the UK wine business, I am constantly bombarded with conflicting messages; about cork taint rates but also the potential environmental impact of drastically reducing our use of cork; about how screwcaps help to retain the freshness of wines, but also about the potential threat of ‘reduction’; about the latest ‘green’ initiatives to cut transport weight by using PET bottles, tetrapacks or even cans for wine.

I support any and all innovation and research, but I am not an absolutist. There is NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER!

I will not rehash the arguments on any of these points, you can find that on the sites of those who have studied the subject of closures in much greater detail than I have, but I thought it might be worth putting forward the case for the position adopted by wineries in Rioja.

Why are Rioja wines SO wedded to the use of cork?

Well, in the first instance, I don’t believe there is an actual law that forces wineries to use cork closures. There are wineries that use plastic alternatives, and even some that have implemented screwcap technology (for export markets) – including big names like Marques de Caceres. However, both of these closures are used only for young wine to be drunk within a year or so of bottling.

Cork is still the king for the vast majority of Rioja wine sold around the world, the aged red wines. This is for three, related reasons:

1. Rioja is a well known, highly regarded wine ‘style’.

That style is the combination of a limited range of climates, grapes and techniques so that a consumer who buys a bottled labelled “Rioja” gets something they will recognise (within limits). Critics could argue that this European approach stifles innovation and individual expression (these people can still make their wines, just not label them Rioja) but one could also argue that it helps to inform the average consumer.

The long term ageing of wine in bottle, using a cork closure, is an important part of this style. Whether it is the limited porosity of the cork or something else not yet understood, Rioja winemakers have over a century of experience of making wine in this way, and so they have some understanding of what effect it will have on their wines.

Alternative closures are either inappropriate for extended bottle ageing (e.g. plastic cork), or have too great an impact on the speed of development of the wine (e.g. screwcap).

I’m well aware that these limitations are being addressed in the relevant laboratories, and once the ageing process is better understood it may well be that screwcaps will be used to reduce spoilage. If other regions and winemakers want to spend their money and effort investigating this, Rioja is still prepares to wait until that work is done!

2. Rioja buyers actually WANT tradition.

Wire Mesh RiojaFor example, just ask any supplier of Rioja wine about the infamous Rioja Reserva wire nets. They are an anachronism (an interesting story for another time, but of no function today) but customers love them.

Producers would love to get rid of them in most instances as they cost a lot of time and money to put on the bottle, and these are costs that are hard to recoup, but customers would buy fewer bottles.

Many Rioja producers would love to really modernise their image, maybe including new closures, but many consumers would be put off buying these wines. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a niche for this, but it is not the path to riches for small producers!

3. Screwcaps, and other closures, are not popular everywhere!

Many British critics (including bloggers), as well as some Americans and other English speaking markets like Australia and New Zealand, have become convinced of the potential benefits of alternative closures. If you sell the vast majority of your wine in these markets, as the Australians, New Zealanders and Californians do, then it isn’t a problem to use them.

However, Rioja has a global reach. It is sold in many more places, such as Mexico, South America, Russia, China and of course throughout Europe too. In most of these countries, consumer and ‘expert’ perceptions of these new alternative closures is very different, and therefore Rioja producers must take this into consideration too.

In short, there is still a lot of debate and research taking place in the field of wine closures. For the time being, there is no conclusive reason, on quality or commercial grounds, for Rioja producers to switch to alternative closures, but don’t underestimate the producers ability to switch were the commercial demands to change.