A couple days ago I was opening a bottle of wine and snapped the cork off half way out of the bottle. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the cork as much as it was my fault. I was in a hurry and didn’t keep my waiters corkscrew opener straight as I was pulling the cork out. If you pull the cork on an angle, especially in older wines, you’ll break the cork more times than not. After being grumpy about the situation for a while it made me think about corks vs screw caps.
I touched on this topic in my October 16, 2019, blog article: “Storing your Screw Cap Bottles.” Several of my Napa winemaking friends have been using screwcap bottles for a number of years now. After many conversations with them I have become much more open-minded on the subject. Let’s examine the pros and cons of each.
Corks are still the most widely used wine closure and have been around since the 1400s. However, this doesn’t mean that corks are automatically better than other closures. One of the main reasons the cork was originally used as a closure was that it is pliable enough to be inserted in a glass wine bottle and effectively hold the wine inside. There are synthetic corks, but I will touch on them in a future blog. Today I will focus on natural corks.
- Natural corks have proven beneficial for the long-term aging of wine. Because of a cork’s elasticity, it can expand within the bottleneck and seal the wine in and keep oxygen out. Its tiny pores, however, allow small amounts of air to interact with the wine and assist in the wine’s aging by transforming its aroma and flavor over time. Their ability to assist aging makes natural corks the top choice for winemakers producing age-worthy wines.
- Cork is a renewable resource. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. After the bark of the tree is harvested it regenerates its outer layer and can be harvested about every ten years. The cork oak tree has a life span up to 200 years. One tree can provide corks for thousands of bottles.
- There is certainly something ceremonial or even romantic about popping a wine cork. This is certainly true in higher-end, wine-focused restaurants.
You have all been part of the formality of your server opening your bottle of wine at your table. When they arrive at your table with the wine the first thing done is to present the bottle of wine for you to look at the label and approve it. They then cut the foil and pull the cork which they set on the table in front of you. Then they pour a small amount in your glass for you to sip. All of this showmanship is part of “pull a cork.” It is not quite as dramatic when you are unscrewing the cap on a bottle.
- As we all know, corks are made from wood, which can and does dry out over time and becomes crumbly. This is the major reason that we cellar wines on their sides…to keep the cork damp. But even with careful cellaring, wines that have been cellared for long periods of time, can have crumbly corks. How many of you have had to strain a bottle of wine or fished pieces of cork out of our wine after the cork has snapped half way out of the bottle?
- Cost is another big factor with natural corks. Depending on the brand and quality, corks can be up to three times as expensive as screw caps. This obviously drives up the final price of the bottle of wine.
- Possibly the biggest drawback to natural cork is the susceptibility to taint. I have written of this condition before. The chemical compound 2, 4, 6 Trichloroanisole or TCA is a cork’s worst enemy. It is caused when chlorine comes into contact with certain fungi in the cork during the cork’s processing. The compound is harmless but when it transfers to wine it creates a condition known as, or called, “corked.” It causes the wine’s aromas to be that of wet cardboard, damp basement odors or smell like a wet dog. It is estimated that TCA effects up to 3% to 7% of wines under cork at any given time.
- Since cork is a natural product each is slightly different. Cork brands and their porousness vary which definitely affects the rate of air that is admitted into the bottle over time and interacts with the wine in the bottle…all of which affects the aging of the wine.
The first screw caps were used in 1964. Peter Wall, the former director of the South Australian Winery Yalumba is said to have become fed up with the number of tainted corks in circulation. He commissioned a French company to develop a new closure. They produced an aluminum cap called the “Stelvin.” This new closure started to become popular by the late 1970s.
Screw Cap Pros:
- TCA, the taint I discussed earlier that comes from natural cork, is almost nonexistent with screw caps.
- Screw caps provide longer wine longevity as the wine is in a relatively oxygen-free bottle which contributes to longer wine life.
- Although screw caps can vary in price depending on the quality, generally they are considered cheaper than natural cork.
- Screw caps are much easier to open, using just a twist of your wrist.
Screw Cap Cons:
- Screw caps are not ideal for long-term aging or for wines that need a little oxidation. The perfect seal doesn’t allow any breathability at all, thus preventing wines from aging.
- Screw caps can also be fragile. If the cap is bumped and the cap is dented, it could break the seal and allow air or bacteria to affect the wine.
- There are some negative environmental impacts that some mention about screw caps. They are made from aluminum which is often produced from strip-mined ore called bauxite. The processing of aluminum can be a very dirty process. The process can also have a negative impact on the air and water, it is estimated that it generates about 70 million tons of waste annually. As we all know aluminum isn’t biodegradable. The caps that aren’t recycled and end up in landfills are there forever. I suspect that most screw caps end up in the trash and eventually the landfill.
- With screw caps you do lose all the formality of pulling the cork.
With so many pros and cons to consider it can become confusing as to which is better, corks or screw caps.
Recent studies indicate that screw caps are becoming much more popular and are being used more and more by wineries. It’s clear that in the high-end wine world there is great resistance to screw caps. It’s my opinion that wines that are produced for aging need to be sealed with good quality natural cork.
For wines that are meant to be consumed young…within one to three years…the screw cap seems to be the best preserver and alternative closure.
From my own perspective I am seriously considering screw caps for my next vintages of Glenwood Cellars Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t however see a reason that I would use a screw cap for my red wines. I make those wines to age and last many years and I believe good quality cork is best for that.
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