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Murray Almond's "From the Left Island"
A Crowning Achievement for Sparkling Wine.
By Murray Almond
26 April 2004

photo copyright Murray Almond

There’s little doubt now that the Screwcap has now become an accepted alternative closure for still wines, and in particular for aromatic whites it appears to be the preferred choice for the 2003 vintage in Australia and New Zealand. This will no doubt increase for the 2004 vintage currently underway.

The search for an acceptable alternative closure for sparkling wine is only just getting underway, however current initiatives by two of Australia’s major players in sparkling wine are making a significant statement for the future packaging of bubblies.

A question that arises here is whether or not there is a need for change? While many support a rate of 5-8% for TCA Taint in still wine, there isn’t an equivalent acknowledged rate for sparkling wine. This may be due to the action of acid or the bubbles in making taint less noticeable, or it may be that we simply drink fewer bottles of sparkling and tend not to notice it as much. I have encountered a number of tainted bottles of sparkling wine within the past few months. This includes bottle of prestige champagne as well as good domestic bubbles.

Tony Jordon, chief winemaker of Australia’s Domaine Chandon winery which is part of the global Moet-Hennessy group, believes that cork has a greater impact on sparkling wine than it does for still wine. He describes three factors affecting cork for sparkling wine; Goût de bouchon (trichloroanisole, TCA taint), Goût de bois (a woody aroma and flavour derived from the cork), and occasionally there is a taint arising from the glues used in sparkling corks which Chandon describe as "Goût de glue". Coupled with this is the occasional failure of the structure of the cork, which can lead to flat or oxidised wine.

When Domaine Chandon were developing a new sparkling wine they decided to look for something other than cork for its seal. After considering a number of options, including a variety of synthetic seals, they decided to use Crown Seals. The Crown Seal makes sense for sparkling wine, after all most sparkling wine made in the traditional method, including champagne, is currently bottled in crown seal as part of it’s manufacture. It is in crown seal when it spends time on yeast lees during the critical second fermentation period when all those bubbles are formed.

So instead of the cork and the wire going onto the bottle after final disgorging, the new Chandon Z*D Blanc de Blancs 2000 was sealed with a stainless steel crown seal. There was also no attempt to disguise the cap, as is seen on the 200ml “Piccolo” sized bottles. As shown in the photo (right) the crown seal is now a feature of the package design.

The Z*D is a dry aperitif style of wine, the ZD stands for 'zero dosage' which means it does not get a dose of the sweet liqueur that is normally added to sparkling wine when it is disgorged. There’s only 1000 cases made of this wine, it is principally destined for the restaurant trade with limited retail distribution, so probably it won’t have a great impact on the general wine-buying public at this stage.

A more significant statement for crown seal is being made this year by Seppelt, part of the Southcorp Group in Australia. Seppelt are about to disgorge the 1994 Show Sparkling Shiraz, and 60% of the total production will be released in crown seal (see photo, left). The significance here is that where Domaine Chandon used crown seals on a new line tailored for restaurants, Seppelt have taken a bold step with their flagship sparkling wine, a wine recognised among the best of it's style, wine typically bought and appreciated by ‘traditionalists’, and a multi-trophy winning wine in Australian Wine Competitions.

Seppelt have also made a highlight of the crown seal in its packaging, with a stainless steel cap being used. The Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz also is a wine that gains complexity with extended cellaring after disgorgement. This is shown by glorious examples from 1985 and 1972 that I've tried in recent times. In launching this initiative Seppelt winemaker Arthur O'Connor said "Crown seal will extend the ageing ability and ensure a wine of superior quality". Seppelt have reinforced this on each bottle by putting a statement on the neck seal as well, as shown in the close-up (above).

Seppelt have shown themselves as a company to embrace innovation, with their white range bottled under screwcap from the 2003 vintage and they have also indicated a direction toward screwcaps for the reds and fortifieds. Having had a tainted bottle of their gorgeous Grand Muscat I personally hope this takes place before too long.

The market acceptance of the 1994 Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz will be interesting to watch. Initial indications are that there is general acceptance for this initiative although there may be a segment of the market that resists it, which is still the case for screwcaps on still white wine in many markets.

Some may argue for the romance of the ritual of opening a sparkling wine in cork, however I can attest that the Chandon Z*D still opens with the same soft ‘hiss’ as does a gently opened sparkling wine sealed in cork. It’s a delicious dry sparkling wine, ideal for a starter with canapés. I also look forward to tasting the 1994 Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz under crown seal, which I expect will show the blackberry and chocolate and velvety richness that typifies this great wine, and toast both companies’ Crowning achievement.

© Murray Almond
26 April 2004 (updated May 2004)

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