Thursday, January 29, 2009

Burrowing Owl rediscovers natural cork

Jeff Del Nin, the current winemaker at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, rewarded himself with an Australian vacation after earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston in the mid 1990s.

That started his journey to winemaking. It also set in motion the chain of events that has Burrowing Owl begin a return to natural cork closures after several years of using synthetic closures.

The irony is that Jeff, who helped Burrowing Owl to change closures, had spent several years in Australia developing synthetic stoppers.

Jeff, who was born in Thunder Bay in 1971, had specialized in plastics and polymer research at university. In Australia, where he met his wife, he soon found work in the plastics industry.

“At the same time, I was developing my love of Australian wines,” he remembers. “Pretty much every weekend, I was off to a different wine region.” The weekend that hooked him, a gift from his wife, was a trip to McLaren Vale, a region that produces some of the most flavoursome of Australian red wines.

But he was still working in plastics. “I saw a job that was advertised, a plastics engineering job to develop plastic wine corks in South Australia [in Adelaide]. I thought, I love wines but realistically, as a plastics guy, that’s about as close as I will ever get to the wine industry.” So he took the job in 2000 and spent about two years developing synthetic stoppers for a company that also sold natural corks.

Obviously, the job kept him in close touch with winemakers. “I started to think maybe I could do this for a living,” he says. When he took a course for amateur winemakers, he realized how well his chemistry training had equipped him to make wine. He quite his plastics job and confirmed his career switch by working at the Barossa Valley Estate Winery before enrolling at the University of Adelaide’s wine school.

After breezing through that program, he decided to continue his career elsewhere. “I felt I was familiar with what was going on in Australia, after tasting those wines and travelling all over Australia for 10 years,” Jeff says. “I also knew that there are a lot of good winemakers in Australia, and they are cranking them out every year.”

For a complete change of scenery, he went to a New York winery on Long Island for the 2006 crush. He liked neither the region not his employer and decided to leave as soon as he could.

By chance, he had stopped in the Okanagan to taste wine on his way to New York and had been particularly impressed with the wines at Burrowing Owl. So he called Burrowing Owl proprietor Jim Wyse about a job. Jeff was welcomed with open arms. The 2006 vintage was one of the largest in recent years in the Okanagan. The winery was up to its eyeballs in grapes and short-staffed.

In 2007, when Steve Wyse, Jim’s winemaker son, left to do his own thing, Jeff was named Burrowing Owl’s winemaker.

Burrowing Owl had abandoned corks for synthetic stoppers several years earlier, after the incidence of cork taint had become far too high. This taint ruins wines by imparting musty aromas and flavours and by deadening the fruit flavours. It is damaging to business when a winery has too many so-called “corked” bottles because many consumers do not recognize the taint. They just figure that the winery makes lousy wines.

“We went to plastic and got rid of all our cork taint,” Jeff says, speaking of a decision made long before he arrived at Burrowing Owl. “Plastic corks are incredibly consistent. They perform in a certain way and they are very predictable. And there is no cork taint.” He suggests that the best synthetic stoppers are the quality equivalent of medium grade corks.

Synthetic closures also have drawbacks, one of them being the total barrier they provide against any oxygen transmission through the stopper. Arguably, this is not ideal for wines meant to be aged.

“It really just depends on what you are looking for in your wines,” Jeff contends. “If you are making a quick-to-consume wine, there is nothing wrong with the plastic corks and there is a lot to recommend them. If you are looking for a wine that is going to be put down for many years, then you are going to have to start looking at other options.”

In the most recent releases from Burrowing Owl, the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir still have synthetic closures. However, the two reds with a long-term aging profile, the Meritage and the Cabernet Sauvignon, now have a modified natural cork. It is a brand called Procork, made and tested in Australia. Burrowing Owl may well be North America’s first winery to use the Procork.

These corks are finished with membrane barriers at either end which eliminate the transmission of cork taint to the wines. The barriers seem to be as efficient as screw caps at sealing the wines but better at transmitting just enough oxygen to stop the wines from going reductive (i.e., developing slightly skunky aromas). The Australian Wine Research Institute has tested Procork extensively against other closures and determined that Procork does its job well.

Burrowing Owl expects that its new corks will benefit is big reds. Time will provide the final word on that.

For the consumer, there is already a benefit. The Procork closures, because they are natural cork, are easier to extract than most synthetic stoppers and much easier to insert back into a partially consumed bottle.


At January 30, 2009 at 9:20 AM , Blogger UCDWino said...

The role of oxygen in post-bottling wine development is so poorly understood. It good to see people willing to innovate to both protect the consumer from cork taint, but still deliver a wine that matures the "right" way.

I'm skeptical however about the procork. TCA is a pernicious little molecule and can invade polymers just as easy as it invades wine, cork, and even the walls in infected wineries. Here's to hoping though!

At February 5, 2009 at 8:37 PM , Blogger alannah said...

I worked on developing the polymer used in ProCork and it is actually an extremely good barrier. It was designed specifically for wine. There are some polymers that are renowned for their barrier properties, stopping even the smelliest odors. TCA is a rather large molecule when compared to oxygen, and the crystalline barrier used by ProCork blocks TCA and still allows a regulated amount of oxygen to pass. If you want more information, please visit or email if you would like to contact me.


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