Don’t Judge a Wine By Its Seal: The Legendary Cork vs. Screw Cap Debate

September 6, 2022

Can a bottle of wine be judged by its closure? In many cases (no pun intended), you can tell a lot about the nature or purpose of the wine by whether it is sealed with a cork or a screw cap. That is because many winemakers often carefully select the sealing method for each type of wine they produce, and the cost isn’t the only consideration.

There is so much versatility in wine, and these nuances can impact the experience found inside each bottle. Wine novice or aficionado, you likely gravitate to certain characteristics over others; such as white vs. red or sweet vs. dry. How it is bottled is another important attribute and is often factored into the selection process.

You may also think it is a trivial matter, but there are distinct benefits and downsides to both methods. Understanding the differences between corks and screw caps can make you the hero of your next dinner party or help you craft the perfect response when your in-laws question why you brought a bottle of wine without a traditional cork.

Screw caps are notorious for cheap wine bottles, but this is a misnomer. You shouldn’t be surprised if you find an expensive bottle of wine with a screw cap, especially one from Australia or New Zealand. So set aside your assumptions (like screw tops are only used on “cheap” wine), and let’s dive into the facts.

Production of the Materials

How the materials are produced and their impact on the environment are important considerations for many wine lovers.

How Corking Got Started

Corks have been the primary method of bottling since the 1400s because of their excellent properties for sealing and aging the wine. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber) found in Spain and Portugal. It was discovered that the cork allows for minimal leakage but sustained aeration; excellent for the gradual aging of wine.

Bernat wine bottle being corked during processing

This method is not only environmentally friendly but is also sustainable for the climate. The process does not harm the tree since the bark is carefully cut away. The cork is harvested when the tree turns 25-30 years old, and then every 9 years after that, but the tree is kept alive. In addition, the manufacturing of cork stoppers creates minimal carbon pollution.

The Evolution to Screw Caps

Screw cap seals have been the preferred method of wine bottling throughout Australia and New Zealand since the 1950s. These countries have since paved the way for the acceptance of screw caps by wine aficionados and wine makers throughout America. Many Old World wine countries, such as Italy, Spain, and France, have not as tenderly adopted this new method, however. Screw caps are a more affordable option for bottling and they can be recycled; not bad for an alternative to cork!

Screw caps are becoming the go-to among many winemakers. Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker of Tercero Wines in Santa Barbara County says that he is not anti-cork but has “been using screw caps for all of my wines since 2006. I am happy with the results, as are my customers.”

It’s a Tale as Old as Wine

Lovers of cork favor this method because of the tradition and romanticism involved. Our very own wine director, Jonathan, transports us to the vineyard-laden hills of the Central Coast when he says, “I love the romanticism of the cork, the cutting of the foil, the twisting of the wine key, the pulling of the cork.” There is nothing like the popping sound of the cork when it ejects from the bottle to lift the spirits of a gathering.

A downside to using screw caps is that they are not as pretty to open and you lose a bit of the romantic nature of the wine experience without the traditional cork removal process. For the less traditional, this might just be a perk though. Jonathan plays the devil’s advocate to his original statement by saying,

“I love the ease of the screw top and the fact that it makes wine a little less snobby.”

Proper Aeration & Aging of Wine

There are practical reasons why wine makers choose corks as well. The material is pliable, which means it can effectively hold wine inside the bottle with minimal leakage. It is an excellent sealing method for long-term aging, making it a suitable choice for wines that are best consumed once matured. The right amount of aeration is beneficial for wine to develop the complexities you would want in age-worthy wines. The ideal cork would permit around one milligram of oxygen to enter the bottle in a span of a year to naturally remove the sulfites added during bottling.

In some cases, a cork can allow for too much aeration. If a bottle of wine is exposed to too much air, the wine can develop a nutty and old taste. Eventually, it can even start to taste vinegary.

Optimum aeration depends on the type of wine as well as the preference of the wine drinker. For instance, if you are swinging by the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafė on your way home from work to grab a crisp white or rosė intended to be drunk as young as possible, you might opt for a screw top. Wines with screw tops are generally made to be drunk relatively soon since they are not intended to age. If you want a complex red for your already impressive wine cellar collection, go for a bottle with a traditional cork.

TCA and “Corked” Wine

Screw caps were designed to resolve many of the deficiencies of the cork. The primary issue they aim to address is the “corking” or tainting of the wine. This is caused by microorganisms in the cork reacting to other substances, such as chlorine, and creating a chemical called Trichloroanisole (TCA). When wine comes into contact with too much TCA, it becomes “corked”.

Screw caps are composed of a metal casing with a plastic insert. With the reduced capacity for aeration, the wine won’t age as quickly nor take on qualities of the cork; helping it avoid harmful oxidation. This also makes the wine very consistent between batches so that each bottle tastes virtually identical, a definite perk for many winemakers.

Just Put a Cork in It! (or Don’t)

Before browsing the wine shelves, you should consider the characteristics of the wine desired, when it is expected to be consumed, and the expectations of the consumers. Whether you choose a bottle with a cork or a screw cap, we hope you lift your glass in the air and cheers to the wonderful complexities and variations of wine. If you are looking for your next bottle, we welcome you to visit our wine store. We have something for everyone and plenty of opportunities to try something new or just outside of your comfort zone.

 

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