A big, pulsating, evergrowing debate in wine wanker land is cork vs. screw top (aka Stelvin, which is a patent/trademark/ownership of Alcan).
The problem is typical, but the understanding is often never fully realized or explained. You buy a special bottle of wine – be it $15 or $150 – purchased from a store, perhaps on the advice of a friend or a store employee. This is a bottle bought with care – perhaps you decided on the way home to buy a bottle of something interesting; or this bottle is meant for a date, or is a gift. But you get home, you crack the cork, and you smell and taste a combination of salt, olives, wet dog and flooded basement. Mmmm… yummy.
Most people don’t drink wine very frequently and we don’t understand that a cork can taint wine. We blame the peculiar taste on the wine itself, certainly never buying that kind again. The debate of cork vs. screw top surrounds cork taint – the occasional, irreversible flaw in cork. The failure rate for cork, subject to debate, but often tested, is generally accepted as being as low as 5 and as high as 15 bottles per hundred.
A failure rate of 10% is wholly unacceptable in pretty much every other industry. Would you board a plane that had a 10% chance of an electrical failure? Would you buy a can of tuna that had a 10% chance of being spoiled? Would you have your car fixed at a garage whose mechanics screwed up one in ten times? Wineries have come to agree that it is unacceptable in their products too, because as mentioned above, not only are consumers 10% likely to experience their wine flawed, but those consumers are perhaps 90% likely to never buy that winery’s wines again. They just don’t know that their bottle was atypically bad compared to how it was meant to taste.
Before I jumped into the industry with both feet I, too, felt the wrath of salty olives in a bottle of what I now know is great wine for the money – Sandhill Cabernet Merlot. My experience was a bottle so badly corked, I physically couldn’t stomach it, but I thought it was just an intensity my palate wasn’t educated enough to enjoy. Not until I took the bottle back 3/4 full, did I eventually realize what had happened. The sight of a brownish wine and a putrid smell immediately coerced the shop keeper to give me another bottle – much to my delight.
What causes taint? TCA – Trichloroanisole – which is harmless but quite foul. Humans, it’s said, can detect TCA more acutely than most other chemicals. We require less than 10 parts per trillion for it to be noticeable. Cork taint isn’t always concentrated enough to be gut-wrenching and in your face – it can be slight; almost unnoticeable. But the fact is it masks the character of wine and is never a positive influence.
Cork is natural and TCA is natural. Cork must therefore be preemptively decontaminated, which assumes that all cork may contain TCA. This is an expensive process that adds to the cost of the little brown plug, which is really one of the last things a winery wants to spend money on. Or so we thought… Even then I am told the procedure to clean cork is not 100% guaranteed.
So a movement began a few years ago to find an alternative closure. You’ve probably seen synthetic corks – usually purple and made of some kind of plastic. Synthetic corks are not inert themselves, and are unreliable seals. Other experiments involved the screw top, much maligned for its ubiquity amongst the world’s crappiest wines, including those found in 2 litre jugs. Thing is, screw tops are an ideal closure – a perfect seal, easy to open, easy to close and save for later, and they’re cheap (though they do require special glass bottles with threads built into them).
While some regions and countries are slow or reluctant to innovate – mainly those whose wine practices are conservative and cemented in history, others see opportunities such as the screw top as an a chance to differentiate themselves as being forward thinking. Most French wines continue to be closed by cork, because that’s how they’ve done it since the wine bottle was invented, and no one’s going to tell them they’ve been doing it wrong all along. Add in that many French wines are sold with austerity and at an expense. What kind of impact is a screw top going to have on fable and tradition? To maintain that they have been, and will continue, closing bottles correctly, the French (sorry to pick on France, there are other regions and countries) argue that screw top lacks the scientific evidence to substantiate it’s status as a perfect closure. Perhaps it seals wine, but a sealed wine does not permit the micro transfer of air into the wine which helps it mature. Cork is porous and allows such interaction. And maybe they’re right – screw top on high-end, age-able wines hasn’t been around long enough to know how the contents are affected.
On the opposite side of the argument many newer wineries, including those that base their brands on zippy whites or fruit-forward reds, and nearly the entire country of New Zealand, have adopted screw top. It’s not by coincidence that New Zealand is thought to benefit greatly from improved closure technology, as New Zealand wines are often associated with zingy acid and freshness which even slight cork taint would silence.
My opinion leans more towards innovation. I don’t care about the supposed romance of cork popping in a restaurant – in fact, I welcome if a waiter cracks a screw top instead of popping a cork. To me it’s a sound of freshness and purity. One time I was at dinner in Toronto with two of Canada’s most influential wine critics and we sent back two corked bottles in a row. The disgraced restaurant owner reassigned our server. Tell me where the romance is in that?
A screw top-sealed bottle contains only the flavors that the winemaker meant for you to taste and nothing else. Some of the world’s leading wines come in screw top now, and I suggest that everyone actively look for them and buy them with enthusiasm. As for ports, champagne and Bordeaux, I’ll continue to enjoy them under cork because I don’t have a choice, but I have to understand that the return policy for these expensive wines in my cellar will likely have expired ten years from now should they prove to be tainted.