Archive for the ‘Bottles and bottling’ Category

A basket case

July 12th, 2013

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BasketsIt suddenly occurred to me the other day that of all the things I have written about our bodega over the last several years, there is one thing that I have never mentioned….. our baskets!

When it comes albariño at Bodegas Castro Martin we chose to store our wines in tank and bottle only as and when required – simply because the wine keeps better and stays fresher in tank. In an ideal world we would bottle each tank, label it at the time of bottling, and then simply sell it, but unfortunately life in the world of wine is never that simple.

As I have mentioned on previous occasions, as we increase the number of overseas markets that we sell to, so the range of different labelling requirements becomes more complicated. It’s not because we are inventing different brands for each market, but it’s simply that the legal label requirements vary so much from country to country. So, for example, if we are bottling a tank of our Castro Martin Family Estate wine, then the question is, how many cases do we label with the EU back label, how many with the U.S. back label, how many with the Australian back label, and so on. The simple answer is that we never know, and so there is only one solution….. to bottle at least a part of each tank without any labels at all. Of course this may sound slightly illegal, but as long as we keep copious bottling records and mark each batch very clearly, then this means that we can store the unlabelled bottles in large metal baskets until required. This wine without label is known as ‘clean skin’ stock. 

Each time we receive an order for a market that requires its own specific back label, then we simply select the appropriate baskets, take out the wine, and label it accordingly. Job done.


April 19th, 2013

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Unless you make and sell a really inexpensive wine I have never quite understood the mentality that would lead you to cut corners when selecting your closure. The saying goes that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and in the same way your bottle of wine is, in effect, only as good as the quality of closure that you use. Why would you go to all the time trouble of growing grapes and then converting them into a fabulous beverage, only to be ruined by a piece of cheap cork? It just makes no sense.

Perhaps I’m banging on about it a bit too much, but we really do take the selection of closures very seriously. As we bottled earlier this week we were again measuring the levels of oxygen both in the tank and in the bottles that we were preparing. Indeed, we have recently decided to make a very slight change to the Nomacorc closure that we use, but this minor adjustment is based purely on the results of two years of both testing (by machine) and tasting (with the tongue!). I have said it before and I will say it again, for Bodegas Castro Martin we are constantly looking for even small improvements to what we do – we will never just rest on our laurels.

In the meantime, our friends at Nomacorc also tell us that there is something new and exciting on the horizon, so please watch this space!

Underwater bottles

I think it was last summer that I wrote briefly about a new development in wine storage and ageing – keeping bottles underwater. At that time I mentioned a French producer that had gleaned a lot of publicity for storing his bottles on the seabed for a while, but I guess the real question is…… is this just a fashion, a publicity stunt, or does it add some real value to the finished wine?

Certainly there are many plus points for ageing wine on the seabed. The light is subdued, the temperature usually does not vary by too much (depending on where you are) and oxygen penetration is really not an issue. Finally you could add to the plus side that the storage itself is free, but then only if you don’t count the cost of submerging your stock and then retrieving it when required. Of course once the bottles are eventually brought to the surface, then they will certainly require a good scrubbing down before they can be labelled.

Other downsides include (besides the added cost of such an operation), that it is possible the salt water might actually penetrate and contaminate the wine. This would bring a whole new meaning to the expression often used for albariño “you can taste the sea”. Perhaps in these health and safety concious days, health inspectors might eventually start to pay closer attention should this idea begin to catch on.

Finally, perhaps a more obvious problem might be security. It is possible that a new profession as ‘wine pirate’ might emerge as thieves start to plunder this unguarded underwater booty!


The other day we were approached by Systembolaget (the Swedish Monopoly) as they launched a tender for the purchase of albariño. The tender document is always quite comprehensive and gives details not only of how much they are willing to spend, but sometimes also, the style of wine that they are looking for. (From my own point of view the product style would simply read “typical”, in other words a true representation of what it is supposed to be).

The other part of the tender document includes all the technical stuff, such as the case size etc., and I have noticed that on the last couple of tenders they have started to specify that the closure should be screw cap. Now, to the best of my knowledge there are only a handful of bodegas (out of nearly 200 in our denomination) that are currently able to supply albariño under screwcap, and Bodegas Castro Martin is not one of them. No doubt this will restrict the number of bodegas that are able respond to the tender, and as such appears to be an odd way to filter their choice of suppliers. After all, a producers choice of closure has nothing to do with the quality of wine that they are able to produce!

For our business the single most important reason for not choosing screw cap  is quite simply that we already have a closure that we know works very well with our wine. We have been using Nomacorc, the synthetic closure for almost 10 years now, and to date I cannot recall any serious problem or complaint (touching wood as I say this). Our decision to use Nomacorc was not made by accident, but only after very extensive testing over an initial period of twelve months. However, we did not stop there, and have since taken our testing to the next level, measuring results over a two year period. This is not done simply by tasting sample wines, but also by examining the Oxygen Transmission Rate (OTR) of the bottles. The fact is that Nomacorc behaves very much like a natural cork in that it allows minuscule amounts of oxygen to penetrate the cork over a period of time. The significance is that if a closure is 100% hermetic (as in the case of screw cap), and allows no transfer at all, then this can be detrimental to a finished wine.

The problem with screw cap is usually caused by sulphur. Nearly every wine that we buy these days is treated with suphur dioxide before bottling (which acts as a preservative), and hence the back label proclaiming ‘Contains Sulphites’. In low oxygen conditions, where oxygen cannot enter, the sulphur is trapped and can develop volatile compounds called mercaptans, which impart unwanted flavours and aromas. As screw cap closures eliminate almost all oxygen, then in a way they can be considered as too efficient.

Certainly the modified evolution of wines under screw cap has now caused some new world producers to reconsider their position, and one or two major players in South Africa and Australia are now reverting back to cork. 

Meanwhile, back at the Systembolaget in Sweden, through my contacts I actually managed to relay a message to the buyer asking if screw cap was absolutely necessary – the reply came back that in his opinion all young, aromatic wines should be bottled with this closure. The problem is that I don’t necessarily agree with this view, and not only that, why would I want to move away from something that I already know works perfectly well for our wine?

Christmas Fizz

December 7th, 2012

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I wrote a few days ago about our denomination’s new sparkling albariño, and whilst there will be a few bottles on the market before Christmas, it’s very unlikely to be appearing in your local supermarket any time soon (if at all). Not because it isn’t a good product, but more because it is likely to be very much a niche product – a curiosity that will never be produced in any great volume.

In stark contrast to this small, limited production it is quite clear that there must be some sparkling wines appearing on the Christmas market which are produced in some quite serious volumes. The reason behind this sweeping statement is actually quite simple…… their price! Picking out recent examples from the UK market (sold by a supermarket which shall remain nameless), they are promoting sparkling wines from as little as £3.29 a bottle, and a handful of others all under £5.00. When you consider that all sparkling wines sold in the UK attracts a higher level of excise duty, £2.43 a bottle to be precise, you might begin to understand where I am going with this. The Value Added Tax on a £5.00 bottle is £0.83, which added to the duty, makes £3.26, leaving only £1.74 for the wine itself (on the £3.29 bottle the residue after tax is only £0.31). Now, when I use the word ‘wine’ this does not actually mean just the liquid in the bottle, the £1.74 (or £0.31) has to account for the liquid, the bottle, the cork, the label, the capsule, the carton, the shipping, the warehousing, the distribution, and oh! I nearly forgot, perhaps a bit of profit for the producer and the retailer. These numbers do not really add up for the £5.00 bottle, and therefore even less so for the £3.29 bottle. The latter must be what is known as a “loss leader” – a product perhaps sold at a loss merely to attract custom and get people into the store on the basis that they will buy other, more profitable items. Also known as “cross town deal” – a deal so good that customers will go out of their way, or possibly make a special journey just to take advantage of it.

I’m very sorry to admit that personally I am never tempted by these offers, especially when it comes to Champagne or sparkling wine. I’m a great believer in the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’, and if an offer is too good to be true, then there really must be a reason.

Glass corks?

November 25th, 2012

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In recent years we have invested quite a lot of time and effort in attempting to find the ‘perfect closure’ for our wine (not that there really is such a thing). Actually, to be more accurate, what I should say is that we have attempted to find the closure best suited to our wine, and for us this appears to be Nomacorc. Of course the latest fashion in sealing a bottle of wine is screw cap, and at least a few of the markets that we work with have asked about the possibility of introducing this. As yet we have not made the change, and this is largely for three reasons – Firstly, we do not believe that the Spanish market would accept it. Secondly, it would mean a significant financial investment at a time when many businesses are more concerned with belt-tightening. Finally, and most importantly, Nomacorc has worked well for us since 2002, and I would be very reluctant to make a change purely on the basis of ‘fashion’.

A few days ago we received an envelope through the post which upon examination looked like it might contain a handful of glass marbles (the type we used to play with as children). I confess that I did not imagine that it would contain samples of glass wine closures – a system called Vino-Lok. In truth I had seen this system before, but only on paper, I had never actually seen one of their glass stoppers.

Made in Czech Republic, I believe they are most widely used in the German market, including Lufthansa Airlines (this might be something to do with the German obsession for re-cycling). Of course with a glass closure there can be no problems with cork taint and bottles can be opened and resealed quite easily, but the downside is that this is quite an expensive product which, as with the screw cap, requires a significant modification of the bottling line.

A nice idea, but perhaps not for us.

There are some debates and discussions that simply appear to go around in circles, and never reach any definitive conclusion. For example, I often write about the various studies that are conducted advising us which foods we should or shouldn’t eat, or perhaps whether a moderate daily consumption of wine can be beneficial to our health or not. It seems that there is always one ‘expert’ or another who is willing to dispel our popular beliefs (or perhaps simply to contradict expert advice of the past). In the end, we can only scratch our heads, not really knowing what to do, and make our own decisions based on common sense and experience.

This week the discussion about wine closures has come to the fore again, as Davis University in California embarks on yet another study on the effectiveness (or not) of screw caps. Backed by a local Napa Valley winery, this two year project will at least use new equipment in the form of a CT scanner, to measure the wine’s evolution. A professor of Davis was apparently quoted as saying “Oxygen is the biggest culprit for wine — it affects taste, colour and the ageing process” – which I have to admit did not come as any great shock to me.

Thus, using my own common sense for a moment, I can tell you that we will not be making any changes to our own tried and tested (Nomacorc) closures at any time in the near future. In the words of one of my very favourite quotes “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!”

As you probably know we are quite keen on re-cycling. Indeed, Angela even collects the paper sachets off her tea bags to put into the re-cycling (which is fine until you go to make a fruit infusion and realise that you’ve picked up an empty one!)

Our latest idea however, is possibly as much to do with design as it is to do with re-cycling. We had a pallet of half bottles, which for one reason or another were unusable, and we were considering our options before committing them to the waste bin. I am not sure where my idea originated from, but I know that I have seen it done before – we decided to use the bottles to smarten up our bar area. The space below our ‘bar back’ consists of pleasing geometrical pattern formed by a series of wooden partitions, albeit that the 45° angles were highly impractical for storing anything – in truth a bit of a waste of space. Over the years a few empty bottle samples had accumulated, as, laying horizontally,  they were one of the few things that would fit the space. So we decided to extend that idea…..

The whole of this under bar space is now filled with empty half bottles (as opposed to half empty bottles), and with lighting behind, they now form an attractive backdrop for visitors using our tasting area. See today’s photo to understand my poor attempt at a verbal description.

Back in June I mentioned on this blog that we had been measuring the Oxygen Transfer Rate (OTR) in our wines. In case you didn’t read it this is quite simply a measurement of the oxygen levels within the wine in our tanks (before bottling), during bottling (oxygen suspended in the wine when bottled), and also oxygen in the ‘head space’ (the small gap between the wine and the cork). By measuring this we can learn about the effectiveness of the closure that we use to seal our bottles.

As I have mentioned before, we already use Nomacorc synthetic closures (a choice made after extensive tests back in 2001/2002), but even so our quest to find the perfect closure continues. We have already ‘upgraded’ twice with the Nomacorc range – from the ‘Classic’ to the ‘Classic+’, and then from the ‘Classic+’ to the ‘Select Series’, but we now search for the perfect option within the Select Series itself.

Obviously we can simply follow the manufacturers recommendation for our type of wine, but in th end we have opted for something far more practical and comprehensive – we have made test bottlings of the three different options within the range. Each month we make a comparative tasting of the three to see how our wine reacts and evolves over time. We are now nearly six months into the exercise, and after months of noticing little difference, we are now beginning to taste some subtle differences between the samples. It should be during the next six months that we are able to make the most useful comparisons as the wine bridges the 6-12 month period in bottle – by the end of this we should be in a position to make our definitive selection and provide our customers with the best possible alternative.

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