Have you ever noticed while shopping for wine that some bottles have a cork and some have a screw cap?
Cork has been the traditional way to close and seal a wine bottle for hundreds of years and screw caps are a modern alternative since they came into existence in the 1950s. Unlike the cork, however, screw caps have the undesirable reputation of only being used for cheaper, lower quality wines. What is the difference between using a screw cap vs using a cork? Is the cork truly better for wine? Today we take a closer look at this debate.
THE GOOD AND BAD OF THE CORK
There is something about the traditional wine cork that seems very distinguished. Removing the cork from the bottle even involves a bit of ceremony; unwrapping the foil seal of the bottle, centering the worm of a corkscrew in the direct middle of the cork, drilling it through the cork, and somehow removing the cork without leaving behind crumbles or accidentally dropping the cork into the wine. It is no wonder that in our minds, the use of a cork often signals higher quality. The cork does not create a perfect seal, which some winemakers see as an advantage. The cork helps to control the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle, developing the flavors of the wine and muting tannins as the wine ages.
While corks have been around for hundreds of years, they are not without fault. Have you ever uncorked a bottle to be hit in the face by a wet and moldy odor? This is the first sign of cork taint, a fungus that is an indicator the wine has spoiled. Additionally, since cork is permeable, it lacks precision which means that if you are aging the same two bottles of wine, they will inevitably have slight variations of taste once they are uncorked. Lastly, for some, the process of uncorking a bottle of wine can turn disastrous. Sometimes crumbs of cork can fall into the bottle while using a corkscrew. If you accidentally push the cork into the bottle, it can be impossible to retrieve without a cork catcher and some determination.
Image by Agne27 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19041929
SCREW CAPS ARE NOT A MARKER OF A CHEAP WINE
A wine with a screw cap is not necessarily a lower quality wine. Screw caps have become favored by “new world” wineries whereas “old world” wineries prefer traditional methods. Wineries from New Zealand and Australia specifically have introduced the screw cap to higher-end wines, the kinds you should cellar long-term. Since a screw cap is impermeable and can enable precision in aging, some winemakers will use it because they do not like the uncertainty and permeability of a cork. The screw cap allows the wine to be delivered to the consumer with the exact taste that the winemaker intended. If you were to cellar two of the same bottles of wine that have been closed with a screw cap, they would inevitably taste the same once opened. As mentioned above, two of the same bottles of corked wine, when cellared, would taste noticeably different once uncorked. There is another obvious benefit to using a screw cap beyond the precision of taste. When it comes to opening a wine bottle with a screw cap, the process is significantly easier. No tools are required; simply twist to open.
Some would argue that aging a bottle with a screw cap is not truly aging the wine. Since no oxygen can enter, the wine is not necessarily developing its flavors over time like it would if it were sealed with a cork. Even so, there is no concrete evidence that wines that have been aged with a screw cap taste any better or worse than wines that have been sealed the traditional way.
WHICH WINE TO CHOOSE?
The next time you are at the store picking a wine, ignore the seal and focus on the liquid inside. Base your selection on your own personal wine likes and dislikes. The seal is not an indicator of quality. And if you do choose to put this theory to the test; the experiment of trying many different corked and/or screw capped wines will surely be fun.