Traditionally, wine bottles have been sealed with a piece of bark from a tree known as Quercus suber, or Cork Oak. While screw-cap wine enclosures have been around since the 1950s, they’ve historically been associated with cheap hooch, so for a lot of people the sight of a screw-capped bottle telegraphs… cheap hooch.
Not so any more, and here’s the deal.
Cork has some theoretical benefits. There’s a certain level of ritual in popping one, and it is pleasurable. It’s traditional, and plenty of red wine producers feel that the jury is still out on the longevity of screw-caps. If your wine is a red built for long aging, cork can be a good thing because it’s a teensy bit permeable and lets in a bit of oxygen, which softens tannins (although those corks are often covered by pretty hermetic heavy foil wrappers so I’m not sure how much of a thing that really is).
Setting that debate aside for the moment and addressing whites, pinks and younger reds, cork can have some drawbacks. The main disadvantage of the screw-cap is perception – people aren’t used to associating it with good wine. However:
1)Screw-caps keep oxygen out, so if you’re not a wine whose tannins need a long adjustment period, you’re better off because oxygenation can also degrade wine.
2)Metal screw-caps, though not a renewable resource, are recyclable. Actually, cork is recyclable. Theoretically. Personally, I know very few people who actually bother to do it; I live in Hippieville and even we have few places where used corks are collected. Generally people are either the type who save them for clever craft projects they never get around to, or the type who throw them away.
3)Screw-caps are easy. No gear required, no struggling with a cork that Just Won’t Come Out or one that breaks and scatters bark fragments into your wine.
4)No cork taint. If you’ve ever eagerly opened a bottle of wine only to discover that it has a distinct flavor of dirty dishrag, mildew, old damp basement or wet newspaper, you can generally thank the cork for that experience. The bark can become contaminated with some complicated chemical compounds that form when airborne fungi are treated with chlorinated phenolic compounds. For those of you who do not want to go back to your AP Chemistry textbook, let’s just say corks can ruin the smell and flavor of wine, and it is a drag.
5) Cork oak, like Bluefin tuna, is a renewable resource, but one that is being consumed at a much faster rate than it can regenerate. So while it’s “natural,” it isn’t necessarily environmentally friendlier.
6)Corks are expensive for the producer. That expense is very probably transferred to you at the Whole Foods checkout counter.
7)Because people still have a subconscious prejudice against screw-capped wine, it tends to cost a little less. You can really use this to your advantage.
Okay – I personally do not make $150 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. So I’m not willing to say I know better than someone who does. But for the record, Napa Valley’s Plumpjack make such a wine and you know what? They screw-cap it. And their screw-capped bottles sell out fastest. So there’s that.
Many wineries are turning to screw-caps and not just for their bargain-basement wines. Hogue and Bonny Doon have totally switched over, and more and more higher price-point wines are showing up on shelves with caps instead of corks. And since the cellaring studies that have been conducted so far seem to be yielding positive results, you might want to grab bottles for later, before people catch on and they stop being less expensive than cork-sealed wine.
I admit it – there is something really satisfying about pulling a cork that isn’t really matched by the screw-cap experience. Corks are kind of sensuous and they’re sturdy and they’re not totally irrelevant. But overall, I think it’s probably time to recognize that screw-caps have a lot of advantages, and while they’re PR-challenged we should all snap them up. I recently even had a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc that I was totally surprised to find closed with a screw-cap. It didn’t ruin the experience in the least and the wine was fresh and crisp and lovely. In any case, I think it is safe to say that at least for whites, pinks and drink-it-young reds, the case in favor of the screwcap is very strong.