Don't hold your breath ...

18 April, 2008

Q I'm reading so many conflicting reports about corks and whether they allow wines to breathe. What is the definitive line on this? Is it true that the benefit of a natural closure is that a small amount of oxygen penetrates the material and keeps the wine at its peak?

A There are many views on this controversial topic, but American expert Dr Richard Grant Peterson says he is getting a little tired of being asked this sort of thing decades after he thought he had disproved the theory that corks breathe.

"Show me a cork that breathes and I'll show you a bottle of vinegar," he says. "I agree that it sounds glamorous to say closures 'breathe' at some mysterious rate which controls the process of bottle-ageing precisely - as if any winemaker ever knows exactly when each bottle of wine will be opened and can time the ageing to match the consumer's whim. The problem I have with this old fable about corks breathing is that it's pure BS. It's high time we stopped seeing it reprinted."

According to Dr Peterson, allowing air into the wine does three things. "It oxidises and removes the SO2 protection from the wine; then it oxidises and removes the tannin, pigment and other polyphenolic protections from the wine; and it oxidises and destroys the flavour of the wine, followed closely by browning."

Despite Dr Peterson's robust claims, research is continuing into the role of closures and the view that corks breathe is going to be hard to shift.

"OK, I'm a realist," he says. "I know that some people are going to continue defining 'wine ageing' as 'slowly oxidising it until the wine isn't drinkable any more' if they want to.

"That's what those idiots do when they promote deliberate oxidation of your wine through selectively defective closures, although I don't think they do it on purpose - it's just that they lack chemical common sense."

Q Scottish & Newcastle has claimed a lot of credit for the widget versions of Foster's and Kronenbourg. Did I dream that Guinness launched a draught-in-a-can lager a decade or so ago?

A You possibly did dream it - but then, many dreams do reflect reality. ≠Guinness Enigma was indeed foisted upon an unready off-trade in 1996 and was backed by a sizeable marketing budget aimed at convincing bemused drinkers of the merits of a lager with a big frothy head.

Sales were not exactly disastrous, but the brand was short-lived and it now occupies a place in the Guinness ≠Museum of Forgotten Brands, alongside Harp.

S&N, for the record, argues that its widget technology is more appropriate for lager than the Enigma effort as it produces finer bubbles.

And don't forget that, though S&N has got a lot of publicity for being out in front with its launch, Carling Premier remains on the market in widgeted form after being launched in the mid-1990s.

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