Pop Goes the Cork, but Snap and Crackle Goes the Screwcap

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.

5 responses

  1. Sarah,
    Regarding the issue of screwcaps…

    First off, I work in the cork industry and am proud to represent a product that is more than a bottle closure. We are talking about a natural product that is easily recyclable and 100% sustainable. Cork trees are not cut down nor are vast open pit mines or oil platforms required to produce the end product. The same can’t be said for alternative closures. Yes, environmental issues are becoming more important in selecting closure options.

    In a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study on the life cycle analysis of cork, plastic and aluminum closures, cork’s green credentials were validated. The study found that CO2 emissions – a key factor in global warming – were 24 times higher for screwcaps than natural cork, while plastic stoppers were responsible for 10 times more CO2 than natural cork. Not insufficient numbers.

    In the May/June issue of Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine, Dr. Christian Butzke, Associate Professor in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University, shared some telling information about wine taint gleaned from his survey of 3,240 wines entered in the 2008 Indianapolis International Wine Competition. (Note: of the 3,240 wines entered, 74% were made from cork, screwcaps accounted for 6% and synthetic were around 17%.)
    Probably the most important finding for consumers and winemakers using natural/technical corks is Butzke’s conclusion that “corked” wines at the competition were on the decline.
    Here is a direct quote: “Since I have been overseeing the Indy International, the number of wines called by my experienced judges to be re-poured because they appear ‘off’ has been rather minute. In my estimate—based on smelling the rejected wines with my own super-TCA-sensitive olfactory bulb—less than 1% of our 3,200-plus wines is noticeably corked,” said Butzke.
    The cork industry has spent tens of millions of Euros to solve the cork taint problem. And, the program is working. The Cork Quality Council in California reports that since 2001, the detectable levels of TCA in incoming cork lots has dropped 84% from 4.00 parts per million (ppt) to under 0.66 ppt – or approaching the limits of the measuring equipment.

    In conclusion: To negate the importance of natural cork as a reliable and sustainable product is misdirected at best. Incredible strides have been taken within the cork industry to improve product quality and provide sustainable packaging choices that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

    And wouldn’t you know it, I vote for the “pop” of natural cork!

    For more information about natural cork visit http://www.corkfacts.com.

    Thank you,
    Roger

    • Dear Roger,
      Thank you for your comment and the link. You bring up some very good points and your concerns about the environment are certainly valid.

      However, my experience as someone who works with wine and tastes a lot of wine has shown me that there are still significant problems with natural corks. Just yesterday I tasted a wine that had the telltale musty aromas of TCA. Not too long ago I was giving a presentation to others in the wine industry and the one bottle I had brought for them to taste to support my presentation was corked. Someone said that I should always bring a back up. Why should I have to? Why should I expect that there will be something wrong with the first bottle? I’ve taken wine to friends’ houses to be enjoyed with dinner only to be disappointed to discover upon opening that it is corked. I’ve been to a dinner party where the wine the host so proudly poured for us had cork taint and everyone sat there silently sipping it because they didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Not to mention the wine that is returned in restaurants because of faulty corks.

      Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly wouldn’t want my Grand Cru Burgundy, or First Growth Bordeaux, or any other wine that needs to lay down for at least a decade, to be bottled under screwcap. Corks have a proven track record here, and for the time being, not enough is known about how wine ages under screwcap. But, the truth is that more than 90% of wine produced today is meant for early drinking, and most wine is consumed within 48 hours of purchase.

      In the past week I have spoken with 2 highly respected winemakers who use screwcaps to bottle their wines. They both said that they prefer screwcaps because they can be confident that the product the consumer will get once they open the bottle will not be faulty. One of the winemakers also stated that using screwcaps allows him to bottle wine with very low levels of free sulphur because the wine under screwcap is exposed to much lower levels of oxygen. (Sulphur dioxide protects wine against oxidation and is necessary when bottling with a cork.) If the winemaking is good up to the point of bottling, then the wine will be good when the bottle is opened. They can’t say the same about natural cork.

      I’m glad the cork industry is working hard to fix their problems and that they have improved the quality of natural cork by 84%. I hope they continue this work and that one day winemakers will be able to use cork and be confident that their wines will not be tainted or oxidized (the other problem with cork). When that happens I will be very happy. Right now, I’m still personally witnessing too many wines ruined due to their faulty corks.

      One thing is obvious, and that is that there are many passionate and dedicated people on both sides of the argument.

      Thank you, again, for your comment.
      Sarah

  2. What always baffles me is this claim from the cork industry: “less than 1% defects = not a problem”

    Even 1% (which I dont believe by the way since all independant reports put the number between 2% and 7%) That 1% is a defect rate that would be tolerated in NO other industry.

    Can you imagine 1 car in 100 having a problem that siezes the engine? You’d have a recall! How about 1 in 100 airplanes failing to reach their destination. Or 1 in 100 hamburgers being infected with e-coli?

    Do the math: 18 Billion cases of wine around the world produced every year (216 billion bottles). Lets say that the average cost of a bottle is $10.

    That is 22 Billion dollars worth of ruined product that the customer has to pay for. – EVERY YEAR. I dont think that the “pop” of a cork is worth it to me. The whole cork ceremony thing is quaint. But Im buying WINE. Not a closure.

  3. I have served many a bottle as a wine steward and gotten very few complaints about the screw top. On the other hand.. corks have issues. The biggest comment I have heard is the lack of the cork popping from the bottle. Most of our older guests like the tradition of the cork. What I really hate it the synthetic corks! It’s a good thing we seldom leave anything in a bottle. You cannot get most of these back on the bottle if you want to pop a little left over wine in the fridge for the next night..

    • Hi Darlene,
      I agree, the synthetic corks are a pain – very difficult to get out of the bottle and even more difficult to put back in. Thanks for your comments.
      Sarah

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