There’s no getting around it. More and more wine producers in Canada and around the world, including ones making high quality wines found in upscale restaurants, are turning away from traditional corks and reaching for what some believe to be superior – screwcaps.
One of the primary reasons winemakers are leaving corks out of their bottles is the abundance of corks infected with TCA, or “cork taint”. It’s thought that somewhere between 3% and 5% (some estimate more) of corks taint the wine, making it smell like musty cardboard or wet dog. An afflicted wine is not harmful to humans if ingested, but it certainly makes what could have been wonderful wine, a very disappointing experience. The formal name for TCA is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, and it is an intensely aromatic, or perhaps I should say “odoriferous”, chemical compound. Only a minuscule amount, about 1 part per trillion, can be detected by a professional taster, and the average consumer can pick it up at about 5 parts per trillion. Unfortunately, TCA is extremely difficult to get rid of, and almost equally as difficult to detect in a cork until it’s too late, and the wine has already been ruined.
In addition to being susceptible to TCA, corks have a few other issues which also make them problematic as wine bottle stoppers. Good quality corks are very expensive, some can be as much as $1 a cork. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when a winery is purchasing tens of thousands of these, it is a huge investment indeed (and don’t forget to factor in the percentage that are tainted too). Then there’s the problem of random oxidation. Because corks are natural products, not all of them are the same. Some will hold a tight seal preventing oxygen from leaking in, while others will not do as good a job. Over a period of ageing in a wine cellar this can mean that the wines will have evolved differently, and some may even be destroyed by oxidation. It’s easy to understand why more and more wine producers are turning their backs on cork and looking for something else to do the job.
This is where screwcaps come in. Screwcaps, also known as Stelvins, will not taint the wine with TCA. In fact, they impart no flavours at all into the wine. They provide an almost completely impermeable seal, so there is little risk of oxidation, and they are very easy to open and reseal. No tools are required.
The main problem with screwcaps is their image. Screwcaps have been around for decades; however, they were originally used on bottles of cheap, barely drinkable wine. Although this is no longer the case; in fact, there are many bottles of very expensive wine topped with screwcaps, the general public still associates screwcaps with cheap plonk.
Another argument against the lowly screwcap is that people claim to like the romance of a cork. I suppose fighting to get into a bottle can get the heart pumping and the blood rushing…but romance? Some say that nothing beats the “pop” of a cork. Well, technically, a good sommelier, or even a not so good one, will not let the cork “pop”. Not even a bottle of sparkling wine should “pop”. It’s supposed to let out an ever so gentle “sigh”, as the cork is removed.
Then there’s the issue of whether wines meant for long-term ageing should be capped with a screwcap. Some believe that the ever so small amounts of oxygen that are leaked into the wine by the cork are necessary for it to evolve and gain the complexity of a mature wine. Others believe that the oxygen present in the neck of the bottle between the wine and the screwcap is all the oxygen that’s needed. Okay, the jury’s still out on this one. Only time will tell. But, there’s no reason why a fresh, young wine meant for early drinking can’t be stoppered with a screwcap.
In a restaurant, wines closed with screwcaps should be presented to the guest the same way a wine with a cork would. When opening a screwcap, the top is held firmly in the palm of the hand and the bottom of the bottle is turned with the other hand until the snap and crackle is heard. If the wine requires decanting, it should be done just the same as any other bottle of wine. The only difference in serving a wine with a screwcap and one with a cork is there is no need for a corkscrew.
You should still receive the same high quality of service with a screwcap as with a cork. You may not get the familiar “pop” of the cork, but you will hear the satisfying “snap” and “crackle” of the screwcap as you anticipate the mouthwatering taste of a fresh, cork-taint-free glass of wine.