Which one looks like more fun?
A few years ago, on the side of Highway 29 in Napa, my hometown, there was a sign advertising one of the sparkling wine houses. I can't remember which one. On it, there was a picture of a champagne cork, with that bulbous top and narrow base, next to a regular cork. Underneath the picture was the caption "which one looks like more fun?" Made me chuckle every time I drove past.
In the photo above, I ask a similar question: Which one would you want in your bottle? This is a question I have attempted to answer for myself, after yet another corked bottle of wine. A couple of years ago, I bought some of the agglomerated corks (corks that are made of cork particles formed into a cork shaped stopper, like the Champagne cork only shaped to fit a normal wine bottle) shown on the left, and bottled some of my Chardonnay under them, as well as under the natural corks I have been using for years. I set aside some cases of each, so that I could taste them side by side, and blind. A few months later, I gathered some winemakers together and we tasted a bottle of each, blind, to see of 1) we could tell the difference and 2) if one was better in any way than the other.
The first thing I can tell you is that operationally there was no difference between the two. Both were easy to extract and formed a good seal. But there were big differences between the wines in each bottle. Enough that it was not obvious that they were the same wine, which was a shock. Who would guess that the stopper would have such a big impact? One wine was notably fresher, more complex, and more interesting than the other. The other was simpler, maybe slightly older (not necessarily in a bad way), and, I had to admit, not quite as good. I fully expected the wine we all preferred to have been bottled with the natural cork but to my surprise (and slight disappointment), it was the agglomerated cork we all preferred. That was in early 2016, about 8 months after the wine was bottled. We repeated the tasting about a year later with the same wine (2014 Chardonnay) and were surprised to find that this time the results were reversed--the natural cork finished wine was fresher and more interesting, and the wine under the agglomerated cork was muted and ever so slightly tired. This was perplexing, but not entirely unexpected. Wine changes with age, after all. I still wrestle with which cork to use. I would say at this point, the jury is still out.
My desire to be as natural as possible has led me to continue to use natural corks, although I have repeated the trial with a somewhat larger percentage of the agglomerated corks, on both the 2015 and 2016 wines. We will see after we taste the trials again, for the third year, and with multiple vintages to look at. It's never simple, is it?