Ah, the great cork versus screw cap debate. Only cheap wines have screw caps, right? Natural cork causes flaws in my wine, doesn’t it? If you find yourself asking these questions, read on as we dispel some myths, explain a few things about different closure options for wines, and celebrate the fact that we can even have this debate in the first place.
The general purpose of a wine bottle closure beyond the obvious benefit of keeping your delicious wine inside the bottle until you are ready to drink it, is to prevent an excessive amount of oxygen from getting in.
We’ve all tried to revisit that bottle of wine that we have left open on the counter for a few days, or ordered a glass of wine from a bottle that has probably been open far longer than it should have. Those unmistakable nutty, sherry-like aromas, the disappearance of bright fruit, and browning color are signs of too much oxygen getting into our wine. While certain circumstances in winemaking and storage do call for the introduction of oxygen, generally speaking, too much oxygen is a bad thing when it comes to our everyday still wines.
The two most common wine closures are the screw cap and the cork. Let’s take a closer look at why and when these are used.
The natural cork closure has a history that dates back thousands of years. In fact, cork bottle stoppers have even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Natural cork is harvested from the bark of two types of cork oak trees that grow in the Mediterranean and Iberian Peninsula.
Due to its porous structure, cork allows tiny amounts of oxygen to enter the wine, which can benefit wines that are particularly tannic and need time in the bottle for those tannins to soften. So, in this case, oxygen – in very small, controlled doses – can be a wine’s friend.
However, natural cork is also prone to the development of TCA – or, trichloroanisole. We refer to this as “cork taint” or our wine being “corked,” and recognize it by those unpleasant aromas of wet cardboard, musty basement, or mildewy dishcloth.
Screw caps were created in the 1950s by a French company called Le Bouchage Mecanique. They are made of aluminum, usually with a small plastic liner on the inside.
Screw caps do not pose the same risks of developing cork taint as natural cork, but they also don’t let oxygen in, which is why they’re typically found on wines intended to be drunk young, such as many whites and fruity reds.
However, there are plenty of winemakers and industry pros who argue that screw cap closures are suitable for high quality, premium wines. In fact, certain wine regions have based their entire wine identity on screw cap wines; For example, screw caps represent about 90% of New Zealand wine closures, including for premium selections.
But Wait… There’s More
There are plenty of other alternative stoppers, including cork-like closures made from different synthetic materials, crown caps like the ones used for beer bottles and sodas and often reserved for natural wines, cork agglomerates made from pieces of ground up corks shaped into a cork-like closure, and even elegant apothecary-style glass bottle stoppers. Each has its own set of pros and cons, and varying levels of oxygen permeability, but all manage to do a sufficient job at their main purpose – creating a tight seal or closure on your bottle of wine.
What the Experts Say
We asked some in the industry about where they stood on wine stoppers. Opinions varied but the general consensus is that screw caps deserve more credit than they currently receive. Many referenced the sense of ritual and tradition behind removing a cork with a corkscrew versus simply unscrewing the cap. Most saw it simply: whatever the closure, enjoy the wine.
Jon McPherson, Master Winemaker for Carter Estate and South Coast Winery in Temecula Valley, and Carter Creek Winery in Texas Hill Country said, when it comes to bottling premium wine under screw cap, “Not only is it possible, it is being done with a greater frequency than ever before, but consumer confidence in this closure has yet to reach total buy-in.” He also noted that TCA is still very much an issue with natural corks.
“Cork is a natural product and Mother Nature, while supreme in so many ways, has yet to make perfect cork bark,” he explains. “The industry has developed methods for detecting potential TCA, and corks can be screened to minimize the possibility of defects, but alas, [to-date], no method can, without a doubt, guarantee there is not any TCA in 100% of the corks in any bag.”
Says Los Angeles-based certified sommelier, wine educator, judge, and writer, Brianne Cohen, “A wine that is under screw cap is not a lesser wine. A screw cap gives no indication of quality or lack thereof.”
“There are a lot of producers creating quality wines using both cork and screw top,” says Phoenix-based sommelier, TV personality, and wine consultant Samantha Capaldi. “[As to] aging? Well, that’s never been my expertise. Life’s short. Drink the damn wine.”
“Wine is an experiential beverage. In many cases, its specialness transcends the liquid,” says wine student and founder of Temecula Wine Ratings, Aaron Saltzman. “[Removing] a natural cork harkens back to centuries of tradition and culture. Winemakers using screw caps still need to find ways to retain that distinctiveness.”
Or, in the words of one prominent wine journalist: “I love screw caps because I’m lazy.”
The Final Score
Whatever your bottle stopper preference, each style of closure carries its own benefits and shortcomings but should never be the reason you choose or avoid a particular wine.
- They create a super tight seal in your wine bottle.
- They come with a long history and sense of tradition in wine service.
- Nothing compares to the delightful sound of a cork popping.
- The popular Coravin wine preservation system can be used on natural cork but is incompatible with most other styles of wine stoppers.
- Cork allows some oxygen in to encourage development of the wine in the bottle.
- Natural corks are prone to cork taint, which creates off flavors and aromas in your wine.
- Unless you are very crafty, you need some type of corkscrew to open the bottle.
- Corks can crumble and break if they get too old or dry, creating a messy situation when opening the bottle.
Screw Cap Pros:
- They are quick and easy to open, making for the perfect portable sip.
- They don’t allow oxygen in, which means the wine stays fresh and bright.
- Cork taint isn’t a threat.
Screw Cap Cons:
- Don’t try to Coravin your screw cap wine, or you will be out one Coravin.
- Because of the lack of oxygen, screw caps can occasionally result in reductive aromas like burnt match stick, rubber, and cabbage.
- There’s just not as much romance in twisting a cap as there is in pulling a cork.