Thursday, September 17, 2009

Corked or Screwed?

I should preface this by saying that I’ve published this very piece of writing many a time before, and that I will keep publishing it until all my wine peeps are wise to the cork vs screwcap game. It is that serious. Enjoy this week’s blog, winebabes!


Hard to believe there is a raging debate in the wine world surrounding such a small item – a bottle closure. To the wine drinker, cork, screwcap, rubber ball bearing, whatever is sealing the bottle is just a barrier they need to get through to get to their wine. Nonetheless, to the producers, importers, distributors, restauranteurs and retailers who deal in wine, that closure can affect the way customers receive the end product in more ways than one. Between the perception the consumer might have of either closure (some still think screwcaps only go on inferior wines) or the condition of a bottle when it is opened, all the parties involved have a stake in the game.

You see, naturally this topic would be of interest to me, the New Zealand Wine Specialist, because about two thirds of New Zealand wines are bottled with screw caps instead of corks. For those of you who don't understand what the fuss is all about, here's a short explanation.

Cork is made from the bark of a tree. Don't worry, it is completely renewable - the bark is stripped from the living tree, only one stripping per tree every nine years, and the stripping doesn’t harm the tree in anyway (I guess they like to be naked – I can relate to that!). The thing is that cork is porous and can harbor fungus and pathogens that sometimes proliferate and get all the way through to the wine. Ironically, the worst cases of this issue stem from the method used to sterilize corks. So when you open a bottle of wine, and it smells like musty basement or wet cardboard, we call it "corked", and send it back to the sommelier or the bottle shop, because all parties involved knew the risks and took the chance on selling you that bottle of wine anyway.

Cork was the seal for wine amphorae in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, and once glass bottles were developed in during the 17th century, it emerged as the most economic choice of stopper. Since the 1980’s, as awareness of cork taint in wines was increasing, development of alternatives closures proliferated. Now, in addition to screw caps, we have synthetic cork, the Zork (convenience of a screw cap paired with the pop of a cork) and the glass Vino-Lok (the super cool glass T stopper), among other innovations. They’re even exploring the use of a crown cap as a final closure for champagne and sparkling wine.

So I was at a symposium on syrah in the vineyards of Hawke's Bay, New Zealand two years ago, and I noticed that the issue was deftly glossed over. On the panel was a syrah producer from California, one from Australia, one from New Zealand (other local producers were present) and a Master of Wine. The question was burning my chest throughout the day. I decided to take the mic towards the end during the q & a period and open the barrel of worms.

If the choice of closure for syrah is an important consideration because of the nature of the grape (they mentioned in the notes that it is naturally reductive; that is a slowing of the aging processes in bottle, and suffers often the formation of stinky sulfur compounds), then what closure is best? It was the Aussie who dismissed me with the very abrupt answer: If the wine is "reduced" when you bottle it, it's going to stay that way, whether it's under a screw cap or cork. The panel quickly took another question.

Afterward, I was thanked by one gentleman for being brave enough to pose the question. After all, it is something that should be addressed in the company of wine professionals who are discussing marketing opportunities for wine, especially New Zealand wine. The thing is that the issue is so polarizing, especially among winemakers, and a cork producer was one of the sponsors of the event, yadda yadda yadda, no one would touch it.

I was then introduced to the lovely Jenny Dobson, winemaker at Te Awa in Hawke’s Bay. She recognized me immediately as the poseur (or imposeur, as it were) of the hot question, and she happily treated me to her thoughts on the subject.

In her experience, one has to prepare the wine for the closure. One choice of closure is not necessarily better than the other. Each has its flaws, and there are issues with screw tops that "no one likes to talk about". For one thing, wine producers have a limited choice of bottles for screw tops and the neck size has to be perfect for the machine, as well as compatible with your choice of screw top, otherwise the collar doesn't sit quite right on the bottle. Although screw tops are less expensive than corks, changing your bottling line over is initially an expensive endeavor. Also, if you stack palates (a large, flat wooden platform that holds like 500 cases of wine) too high, literally two high, the pressure can break the seals of the bottles on the bottom.

She uses both closures. Her corks come directly from a producer in Spain (most of the world’s cork comes from Iberia), and they are composite corks from which the offensive microbes have been removed. Cork producers are working hard to improve the way they grow, produce and clean corks. At dinner that night, I was chatting with Amelia, winemaker at Matariki Wines, and she echoed Jenny’s sentiments, adding that her choice of closure has more to do with marketing than with the wine itself. Her less expensive, second label goes in a cute, stylish screw cap. The estate wines, made for cerebral enjoyment and old school aging, are finished with corks.

Still, people, especially people who make wine, generally have very strong opinions about which is better. From all accounts, had they taken my topic on, dudes might have had to break up a fistfight!!

Personally, I like screw tops for their easy access, and I also like being able to reclose the bottle. I've had (myself, purchased for personal use) very few corked bottles of wine, and at least once, I've had a screw top bottle I couldn't open because the collar was too loose and so I couldn't break the seal. I’ve had corks dry up and break as I try to extract them, then expand so fat that reinserting them was impossible. The latter is especially common with synthetic corks, which can also be really tough to remove from your corkscrew! Bottom line, drink wine and enjoy life. Drink it out of screwtop or cork or Zork, bottle or box or can, stemmed or stemless glass, plastic tumbler or coffee mug. Much like your last blind date, its what’s inside that counts.

Photo Credit: The Paupered Chef, March 2007,

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