Posted by: David Stewart | December 20, 2014

Put a cork in it

I’m truly amazed at the kind of passion generated by the simple question of corks vs screw caps.

Used corksIn ancient times, wine containers were capped by all manner of things, such as cloth soaked in olive oil. The cork came along in the 1600s just as glass bottles were also becoming popular. But in the latter part of the 20th century, the so-called Stelvin Closure became available as a replacement for both cork and the foil cap on wine bottles.

Some people probably heaved a sigh of relief: no more searching to find a cork screw or struggling with the mechanics of uncorking. Nearly all of the production of wines from New Zealand and half of Australian wines use twist-caps. There are a few wineries in the US which have adopted them, but almost none of the (vast) production from Europe uses screw caps.

The argument for screw caps goes to quality: There is a nasty defect in %1 – %3 of wines due to 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is associated with a chlorine interaction with wine. The percentage of TCA “cork taint” used to be higher during a few years when the cork producers in Portugal reduced some of the quality of their product. Now it appears to be all but eradicated from the cork producers.

Why care? Well for some of us, drinking wine is not about the juice in the bottle. It’s a totality of sensory experience. This includes the wine, the label and yes, even the pulling of the cork. It’s quite telling that wineries which use the screw cap often use cork for their higher-end product. It’s because most people presume that a twist-off cap can’t be atop a truly high quality wine.

I’m not so much of a snob that I won’t buy wine that is topped with a Stelvin. On the other hand, I have not bought much wine or joined the wine club from wineries which predominantly use screw caps.Used corks
What about TCA or cork taint? I realize that a lot of wine producers suffer because of consumers returning bottles because they are corked. So they figure the screw cap saves them on returns. Actually I can think of only one or two bottles at most in my life have ever been corked.

“How would you like it if I stripped off your skin and stuffed it into a bottle?” – a Facebook comment from a friend. Eww. This implies that the poor cork trees are experiencing pain when their bark is pulled off. Should there be an eco-concern here? I’m actually led to believe that the cork trees are not harmed in any way by harvesting cork and usually can be harvested repeatedly. Cork tree plantations typically form a habitat for many species. And they do seem more renewable than metal caps.

If you want to know more about corks vs screw caps, the Wine Folly blog has a really terrific post about it.

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