We got a lot of nice e-mail about our first foray into wine with a screw cap. Who knew so many of you were tired of pulling corks and were longing for an easier way to get to your wine? One reader confessed she was glad not to add to the pile of corks she’d accumulated since she can’t bring herself to throw them away. We’re amassing quite a few piles of them ourselves. Cy has some sort of scheme for a grand arts and crafts project, but he won’t tell me what it is yet. I’m picturing something like this… 🙂
These days, lots of different wines have screw caps, even reds that probably would have had corks 10 years ago. Corks definitely allow wines to “age” in the bottle, for better or worse. Natural cork is air- permeable, it lets a small amount of air into the bottle over time. We’ve talked about the effects of air on wine before, but it’s worth noting that wines bottled with screw caps and impermeable plastic corks also change over time – unless the bottle is filled to the brim there’s a little air space in there that provides some oxygen to interact with the wine (or unless the wine is bottled in an inert atmosphere, like under nitrogen). And, of course, if the closure fails (and even screw tops can fail), the wine will spoil no matter how the bottle is closed.
The main reason that some winemakers have embraced the screw cap is because of something called “cork taint,” where the cork makes the wine taste bad. We’re not talking about vinegary or sherry-like spoiled wine, but a genuinely bad smell and taste that comes from the cork itself. I’ve only had this happen once, but it’s something you don’t forget. The particular chemicals that cause taint are detectable by smell and taste at very low concentrations. Cork can become contaminated while still on the tree, during processing, or during storage.
Sometimes the contamination seems totally random – the contaminants are compounds that were widely used in wood preservatives for decades and until recently were found around many wineries. The contaminants evaporate from the wood and are readily absorbed by cork and some porous plastics. Because it takes only a miniscule amount to ruin a wine, a small amount of the contaminants in the air can ruin a big batch of corks.
Another factor in cork taint was the political situation in Portugal in the 1970s and 1980s following the overthrow of the fascist regime that had ruled since 1932 . Portugal remains the world’s largest producer of cork, and cork was the country’s most important economic sector. The industry, which had been dominated by a few large producers, was ripe for “reform” and was mostly taken over by loyalists of the new regime who took on the task of increasing production. (This isn’t to say that the cork industry, which was essentially stuck in the feudal system into the 1970s, didn’t need reforming.) They tried all sorts of things, including pesticides and fertilizers that did increase the amount of cork produced, but also contaminated the cork with chemicals that persist in the environment. Cork trees live a long time, which meant that contamination would continue for decades. Higher production without proper care also meant that corks were sitting around growing mold, which also contributes to cork taint. (Cleaning the corks with chlorine then created more of the contaminants).
At the same time, demand for wine and cork increased substantially, so there was a sort of perfect storm of events that conspired to bring the issue to focus in a big way. The late 1980s saw a huge upsurge in reports of cork taint involving some very pricey wines. Winemakers, especially outside Europe, quickly turned to plastic stoppers and screw caps. There were problems with both. Some early versions of screw caps contaminated the wine with chemicals contained in the plastic seal (we’ve learned over the years that plastic isn’t necessarily “inert,” and that chemicals in plastics can migrate from them – think of soft vinyl toys and polycarbonate baby bottles). Composite plastic stoppers could be effective but also failed more often – we’ve all had bottles where you start putting the corkscrew in a plastic cork and the cork actually moves, so it wasn’t sealed properly. Plus, plastic corks can be really hard to remove with your average hand-twist corkscrew.
There have been considerable improvements in screw caps and cork quality control, and these days I have a choice of stoppers when I order wine from some producers. I can usually be sure that the wine will be good using either. But as we all know – and not just for wine — closure comes with many issues and isn’t always foolproof. And the issues go beyond the bottle. For example, the enviro in me would love to see some data on the real sustainability of cork vs. the potential for recycling screw caps, but I haven’t found any yet.
So we’ve put our toe in the water with screw caps. And by your response, I see it’s something we can expand in the future. It’s still a little jarring to order a nice bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant and have the sommelier open a screw cap at your table, but I’m getting used to it. (The sommelier is there primarily to give advice, not just for his or her ability to pry a cork from a bottle and be judged on technical prowess and style — although that is fun). In the meantime, we’re not giving up on corks for all our wines. After all, if we didn’t have all those corks lying around the house, whatever would Cy do in his spare time?
Now for the recipe. Cy and I were in Provincetown on vacation and ate a lot of lobster. And this week’s weather here in DC is giving hints of fall – it was 58 degrees when I woke up Wednesday morning! The combination brings back memories of a dish my mom used to make on very special occasions, a lobstery-elegant version of a creamy chicken casserole. It came from the first fancy cookbook my mom bought when I was a kid, A Treasury of Great Recipes by Vincent Price (yes, that Vincent Price, believe it or not). It cost a relative fortune back then (over $20) and had an embossed, padded faux-leather cover so you knew it was something special. Ol’ Vincent traveled the world and could walk into any restaurant kitchen and ask for recipes, because he was Vincent Price, and others, well, weren’t. He and his second wife, Mary, adapted the recipes to more readily-available ingredients and home kitchens, and the book came out in 1965. It’s arranged by restaurant and has copies of the old menus in there, so it makes for fun reading even if you’re not cooking from it.
As for the food, the recipes definitely stand the test of time, even though most of them come from fancy hotel restaurants – places we don’t tend to think of as having great food these days. The cheesecake recipe is lighter than most and outrageously good. I still make it. It was also the first place I saw a recipe for risotto and for green fettuccine. You won’t learn techniques à la Julia Child, and the recipes are brief enough that they assume a certain level of cooking ability. But it’s a keeper and if you find a copy, buy it. A few years ago, the New York Times asked chefs and food writers about their favorite out-of-print cookbooks and this one was definitely on that list, for good reason.
“Poularde Dikker and Thijs” is braised chicken with mushrooms and lobster from Dikker and Thijs restaurant in Amsterdam. The hotel and restaurant are still there, and the recipe definitely qualifies as heart-attack-style French. (We think Julia would approve). The original calls for boiling the lobster and poaching a whole chicken – since you have to bone the chicken and shell the lobster that seems like an extra step, so I use a cut-up chicken and three cooked lobster tails (if you can find a whole cooked, shelled lobster, go ahead and use it, since the claw meat is more delicate, but lobster tails are easier to find). Vincent says the restaurant serves the chicken with truffled rice. A great flavor combination, but since most of us don’t have truffles around (and can’t afford them), you can stir some truffle oil or truffle butter into cooked rice. This is definitely not an everyday meal, so don’t skimp on the butter, cream, or brandy. And serve it with – what else – champagne! I think champagne is waaay underutilized as a wine with meals, and its acidity and complexity go beautifully with this dish. Try our Champagne Bernard Mante Brut ($32) or Brut Grande Reserve ($38). They’re dry but not bone dry, and will bring out the sweetness in the lobster. You can’t unscrew the top off the bottles – but you’ll manage somehow!
Braised Chicken with Mushrooms and Lobster
Meat from a cooked 1-1/2 pound lobster, or 3 large cooked lobster tails, cut into one-inch pieces
One cut-up frying or roasting chicken, 3-4 pounds (if you’re using pieces, make sure they have skin and bones)
Salt and pepper
10 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
1 cup dry white wine
8 ounces white or cremini mushrooms, quartered if large, whole if small
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespooons brandy
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup long-grain white rice
Truffle oil or truffle butter
In a casserole with a lid, melt 8 tablespoons of butter. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and brown thoroughly in the butter. Add the wine and mushrooms. When it simmers, turn the heat to very low, cover the pot, and simmer for 45 minutes.
Remove the chicken and the mushrooms. Mix the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter with the flour to form a paste. Add the paste to the sauce in the pan, whisking to dissolve the paste and thicken the sauce. Stir in the cream and brandy.
Remove the meat from the chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces. Add the chicken, mushrooms, and lobster to the thickened sauce and warm over low heat to serve.
For the rice: boil the rice in water either by package directions or your preferred method. Once it’s cooked, stir in 1 teaspoon truffle oil or 1 tablespoon truffle butter. Taste for salt, and add more of the oil or butter if you like. Don’t use too much, though, a little goes a long way!