Screw Caps or Corks; one question I will never ask a group of wine drinker after a couple bottles of wine. Everybody has an opinion and nobody will ever admit that they are wrong. I’ve been following a discussion on this subject on one of the wine forums I follow and the responses have been interesting. There remain a few purists who believe that natural cork is the only proper way to seal wine in a bottle, some in the middle will admit that the new plastic corks will do, but they really prefer natural cork and then there are the rest that really care about the quality of the wine rather than how it’s sealed in the bottle. Oh I forgot there also remains a number of cork fans who want natural cork because they use them for other things like crafts and stoppers for other glass containers. I confess I have no good argument to make in defense of Screw Caps with this group as I see no practical application for them in the craft and stopper arena.
Seriously I am really no expert on the subject and so I turned to a couple of winemakers to chime in and give me their perspective. Randall Grahm, a long time winemaker and the producer of a host of my favorite wines, including a Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre (GSM) blend that starts my heart fluttering every time I take one out of my cellar, offered a great perspective which I quote below:
Randall Grahm — “The question of cork vs. screw-cap is enormously complex, and there are a number of technical reasons why one might elect to use one over the other. In brief, the use of screw-caps enable a winemaker to avoid some of the technical problem of corks – leakage, and potential TCA contamination. Further, (this is a bit counter-intuitive), wines sealed with screw-caps are in fact generally (mostly) capable of longer ageing than those sealed with corks, and can be bottled with lower levels of protective SO2. (This is a beautiful thing.) But in winemaking as in life, there are always trade-offs. (There is no free lunch.) Wines sealed with screw-caps, if we use the very tight liner behave somewhat differently than wines sealed with a cork. (Note, there are various liners available for screw-caps, allowing differential amts. of oxygen permeation, so not all screw-caps are created equal). Screw-capped wines are often a bit more reticent, or “closed” upon opening. In extreme cases, they might even express a slightly rude aroma of “reduction.” (Note, this is generally not the end of the world.) In any event, in my opinion at least, virtually all wines sealed with Saratin (the tightest screwcap liner) seem to benefit from decanting. The fact that a wine might be “closed” or reticent or even slightly “reduced” (i.e. prone to the expression of sulfide aromas) is in fact an indicator that it likely possesses the capability of living a much longer life. In my opinion at least, all things being equal, a wine sealed with a Saratin screw-cap will generally have a life-span of approximately 50% longer than the equivalent wine sealed in cork. I’m hoping that I’ve not created more confusion on this subject.
Randalls perspective doesn’t Answer the question of which is better any better than most of the discussions I’ve had with fellow wine lovers, but it does demonstrate that both have advantages and disadvantages. Another of my favorite winemakers who just released a Killer Dry Creek Syrah with a screw cap that presents very well right out of the bottle, (no decanting or aeration required) gives us a more historical perspective with a more positive slant to screw caps:
Tim Olsen — “Robert, in answer to your question about screw-caps and aging, things have come a long way. Originally patented in 1889, screw-caps came into widespread use in the 20th century. With the development of the Stelvin screwcap in the 1970’s, the wine industry started embracing the new technology. Initially it was jug wines and lower priced wines. When Plumpjack released a $135 bottle of 1994 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid nineties, people realized the screwcap wasn’t just for cheap wines. Still it has been a slow adoption as issues continue to swirl around quality and aging concerns.
The short answer is any concern about screw caps and aging are all perception based. The facts are that there are a number of different liners (the plastic seal inside the screwcap that covers the bottle opening) available. The variations have different porosities which allow for differing “breathing” rates. This means that we use one kind of liner for fresh young white wines and a different liner for age worthy red wines. BTW, that 1994 Plumpjack wine is still aging and drinking well.
And lastly, the risk of cork taint (TCA) is eliminated. You actually taste what we put into the bottle instead of a wine that has some or a lot of influence from contact with the cork. As much as I love the sound of popping a cork on a nice bottle, I hate what cork (not all but too many) has done to the taste of wine. Consider this winemaker sold on screw-caps”
Given the two perspectives, it seems to me that it all comes down to what the winemaker feels comfortable with and and what systems they have available to them. One of my wine making acquaintances from France, Virgile Joly, one told me that he uses cork because he rents a bottling plant and cork plants are what is most available in France. Face it, bottling operations are not cheap and for small producers change will likely be slow. I suspect that younger winemakers have less of an issue with screw caps, than some of the veterans.
I’ve experienced a “corked” (Cork Taint — TCA) wine and it is not pleasant, either on the wallet or the palate, and eliminating that issue is just fine with me. So I guess the issue of consistency and reliability plays strongly into my willingness to accept screw caps as a better way to go. Anecdotally, I have also noticed that with really good wines in screw cap bottles, the shelf life is better after opening. I’ve had both red and whites last for up to two weeks in screw capped bottles with no negative impact on the flavor. I would also note that with young reds I actually believe they get better a few days after opening because of the acceleration of their maturity due to air exposure.
I hope this post generates some good online debate and discussion because as Randall Grahm noted, the issue is far from over and “is enormously complex”.
Isn’t that funny, I thought I had commented on this post when I first came by here. 🙂 Anyway, I think I just said it was interesting info and I had gotten very similar opinion from a winemaker at Wooldridge Winery here in Southern Oregon just two weeks ago.
Which opinion, there were several in the post and the comments
Sorry, Tim Olsen’s response and the info about screwcaps being more intentional in that you can choose the porosity. A cork, in the end, is a crapshoot. You can assume that if you get a quality wine with a screwcap, that the winemaker has chosen a specific cap to age it as desired.
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Great input from both Randall and Tim. Tim’s answer is very similar to the answer I was given by the winemaker at Wooldridge Creek Winery. (They have great wines, BTW. http://www.wcwinery.com/ )
Great post, I’m a lover of screw caps but I do like that indulgent sound of a cork popping out the bottle neck. that being said I’ve only ever had one bad bottle with a screw cap in my life and have been disappointed by corked wine on many occasions. To through another group of bottle sealer preferences into the mix though I cant stand plastic corks, to me they are neither one thing or the other.
Hi Robert, just a quick note to say, love the blog. Is GSM Grenache, Syrah, and Merlot? or is it (Mourvedre)? Maybe not important to the article, I don’t want to be picky…
good spot Jan
Jan — Be picky, I think you are probably right, I’ve fixed it. Thanks for the proof reading. You can proof my stuff anytime (-;)
Obviously I have an opinion in the matter but my biggest issue in the whole debate is what good is plastic cork? It is not any more environmentally friendly than real cork, it won’t ever break down. We need to take control of this issue and not let people be so snobbish that it results in the destruction of a species due to our ignorance and willingness to try a new direction, that being screwtops.
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Jan — Does you post below advocate switching to screw caps to preserve the Cork trees as a species? It was not entirely clear to me.
Yes switch to screw caps to save the cork trees and don’t make anymore synthetic corks that will not break down.
I may be wrong but I thought that species like the Iberian lynx are at risk due to the more common use of artificial stoppers, rather than the trees being at risk themselves, as the industry as a whole protects and cares for the environment, without the harvest of the bark and the workers caring for the woods as a whole the system starts to fail the creatures but not the flora