The battle of wine cork vs screw cap

There is something very romantic about opening up a bottle of wine. Pulling the cork with your trusty corkscrew, then when you reach the end, hearing that slight ‘poof’. Exposing the wine to fresh air for the first time in months, if not years. Grabbing a bottle from the wine fridge and simply twisting a cap open in less than couple of seconds is a decidedly different experience, but the reward just the same.

When it comes to the heated debate of the wine cork vs. screw cap debate, there is no obvious side to take. Besides the tactile and romantic aspirations, what’s behind it all?

SCIENCE VS TRADITION

old_winemaking_equipmentWe must first look at the time of wine BC. Um, that’s before cap. Corks have been used as bottle stoppers for as long as there has been wine. But it wasn’t till the end of the 16th century that they were widely used. Cork’s elasticity combined with its near-impermeability made it great as a material for bottle stoppers.

Cork is not manufactured and actually comes from a Cork Oak. Which are mostly grown in southwest Europe and northwest Africa. 50% of the worlds cork comes from Portugal alone. So it’s no surprise that Portugal is a huge supporter on the side of pro-cork.

Many new winemakers are opting for screw caps, which first made it into the market in the 80′s. But why the switch? Los Angeles native Victor Abascal from Vines on the Marycrest, a craft winery in Paso Robles, says the reason is simple. They are just better. He also notes, “If corks were better, which they are not, they better be 6% to 10% better. Because that is their failure rate. And… they are not. Debate over.”

On the other hand, some winemakers are still very passionate about the feelings that a cork evokes. Keith Saarloos, of Saarloos & Sons Winery (also our wine making partner) takes the emotional side of it. “No one gets laid opening a bottle of wine the same way they do a bottle of Aquafina,” Saarloos jokes. He adds, “When you pull the cork there is a sense of finality, burning the ships, sabering the bottle…”

Larry Schaffer from Tercero, a craft winemaker with a tasting room in Los Olivos, has been using screw caps since he first launched his label in 2006. Larry, who considers himself a consumer first and winemaker second, sees it as an education issue. “The general public has no clue as to what a ‘corked wine’ is anymore,” Schaffer proclaims. “Now, if someone doesn’t like a wine, it is corked; if it smells like sherry, it is corked; if the cork breaks apart when you try to remove it, it is corked; if it smells ‘earthy’, it may be corked… How can they determine if a wine is flawed or not based on the cork itself?”

Back to the view of the winemaker, Shaffer adds when it comes to TCA, “The cork companies basically say ‘buyers beware’, and this is simply not right. The last thing I want to do is invest 1-4 years in a project only to see it ruined by something I can’t smell or see when putting the cork in.”

It’s not always science or romance that affect the winemaker’s decision. Gary Stewart of Four Brix Winery in Ventura says it’s also a financial one. “The fact is that screw caps cost less for the winery vs. cork, and that is fact. Their card is also cork taint. But cork is not the only way TCA can enter into the wine,” Stewart explains. According to him, the issue they are also trying to fix… the aging issue. He adds, “They can make all sorts of claims on how their screws will allow aging, but they have not perfected that yet. I know several wineries that went to screws and are now back with corks.”

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PROS AND CONS

Without considering the romance, politics, history, or perceived low value of a wine because of a screw cap, let us look at the pros and cons of both.

Cork Pros

  • Corks, while a great option for sealing wine, are just slightly porous. Which some winemakers believe will allow this living, breathing thing that is a bottle of wine, a little bit of air.
  • Extra air allows the tannins to oxidize so they’re softer.
  • Long term aging has been proven with cork.

Screw Cap Pros

  • No chance to get TCA taint.
  • Can be up to 3x cheaper than cork.
  • Can be opened on the go, without any type of device.
  • Tends to keep wines fresher, for wines that are meant to be drank at a relatively young age.
  • No broken cork bits accidentally floating in your wine.

Cork Cons

  • “Corked” bottles of wine! That off flavor of wet cardboard, caused by the presence of the chemical compound 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (or TCA) present during the cork making process.
  • 5 to 10 percent of all bottles with natural corks show some degree of spoilage. This can really cut into winery profits.
  • Some small environmental concerns. Recyclable but not biodegradable, non-renewable resource, etc.
  • Variable manufacturing levels of quality. In other words, cheap corks that could break when opening or are more likely to cause a corked or an oxidized bottle of wine.
  • Corks will dry out over time if wine is not stored properly.

Screw Cap Cons

  • The jury is still out as to whether or not it will protect the wine over a very long period of time.
  • There are some opinions that screw caps can cause wines to taste flat, slightly reductive and lifeless.
  • The wines may evolve at a slower rate.

IS THERE A WINNER?

Looking at all the evidence it seems as if screw cap might be the way to go. More wineries, even some upscale ones, are choosing to go screw cap. But the ability for aging seems to be the major unknown here. One thing is clear. The debate will go on for some time. Regardless of the risk, there are people who prefer the tactile feeling, aromas and ritual of uncorking a bottle of wine. I am one of those people. But I will never scoff at a wine because of its screw cap.

Plastic corks were not considered in this debate. Cause our head started to hurt, so we poured a glass of wine and left those out of the equation. For now…

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2 Comments

  1. James on Reply

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I have a huge collection of the wine cork, dont wanna waste them , I have heard about an organisation called, CORKCLUB. They recycle wine corks to save our forest. Planning to ship them. Save our forest.

  2. James on Reply

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Its really nice. Don’t throw your wine corks ship them to “CORKCLUB”, Let’s save our forest.

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    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

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  4. @EHWineCompany on Reply

    It’s also important to recognize that even a bottle of wine that doesn’t show perceptible amounts of TCA, is still being altered/masked by the presence of TCA. As a small producer my story is that bottle of wine, and I don’t get a lot of chances to tell my story, why would I risk that with a closure that’s sole purpose at this point seems to be the history and romance. I’m not selling packaging, I’m not selling a “Harlequin Romance” novel, I’m trying to sell “Catcher in the Rye.”

  5. Hank on Reply

    No closure is perfect. But screwcaps are more perfect. They offer, in addition to your list of “pros” a consistency that cork cannot ever match. Every bottle under cork will age slightly differently as every cork is slightly different in terms of porosity, density, etc. Every screwcap is the same. If applied correctly, every bottle of wine sealed with a screwcap should age identically.
    Regarding the ability to age…well, the jury is not out. Ask an Australian. They’ve done the time and studies. Screwcapped wines age just fine.
    The decision whether or not to use cork or screwcaps is a personal one. For me, I cannot accept a failure rate of 5-10%. No one should…but then again, that’s your choice as a winemaker.
    I like to think, that if wine were a new invention, no sane person would ever suggest sealing the bottle up with a piece of tree bark.

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