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Chehalem, pinot noir, and screwcaps

chehalem pinot noirScrewcaps, say the purists, don’t let wine age. Harry Peterson-Nedry has a PowerPoint presentation that says otherwise. And who says Microsoft products are useless?

Peterson-Nedry is the co-owner and long-time winemaker at Oregon’s Chehalem Wines, where screwcaps have been used to close pinot noir, chardonnay, and its other varietals since the end of the last century. As such, Peterson-Nedry, a former chemist, has tracked more than 15 years of wine, complete with data, charts, and graphs. Or, as one of the slides last week mentioned: “absorbents at 420 nanometers.” In other words, a rigorous, scientific look at how well Chehalem’s wines aged under screwcaps.

The result? Quite well, actually, if different from the way wines age with natural and synthetic corks. And, if we didn’t believe — or understand — the science, we tasted three five-wine flights of Chehalem labels — the winery’s $29 Three Vineyards pinot noir from 2009 to 2013, the same wine from 2004 to 2008, and Chehalem’s stainless steel $18 Inox chardonnay from 2004 to 2014. Tasting made believers of us all, even those who may have been skeptical about Peterson-Nedry’s research.

The highlights from the slide show and tasting (without too much science) are after the jump:

? The main difference in closures is oxygen. Screwcaps let in less air than cork, so that screwcap wines remain fresher and brighter over time. Peterson-Nedry thinks this is where the confusion lies; wine drinkers expect older wines to be less fresh and bright. When they aren’t, they assume the wine hasn’t aged. Instead, screwcap wines seem to age more slowly.

? That lack of oxygen means it takes screwcap wines longer to open up after the cap comes off. I’ve noticed this with my $10 screwcap wines; many need 20 or 30 minutes to taste the way they should, as opposed to almost no time at all for wines with cork. It was especially noticeable with the 2011 pinot noir, which was well made but not very interesting on first tasting. Some 30 minutes later, though, it was the best wine of the entire tasting — fresh, subtle, intriguing, with layers of berry flavor, and highly recommended.

? Screwcaps don’t hide flaws. The high alcohol wines, which should have moderated after a decade in bottle, were still hot, while the wines that had too much oak, which should have become less noticeable, were still oaky. Peterson-Nedry said this presents a winemaking challenge that didn’t exist before screwcaps: How to account for how much more slowly the wines change?

The 2010 pinot is also worth drinking, with an earthy Burgundian aroma and an almost zesty, savory berry fruitiness. My favorite chardonnay was the 2013 — just 13 percent alcohol, clean, and tart green apple fruit, the much prettier sister to the wonderful $10 Lugny chardonnays from Macon in France.

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