Here’s a topic that almost everyone who enjoys wine has an opinion on … what’s better for sealing a bottle of wine: a cork? Or a screw cap? This is a controversial topic that is somewhat akin to debating religion or politics with your friends. I’m curious as to what you think and hope you’ll post your thoughts on this.
Natural cork has been used as the preferred bottle closure since the 18th century and its adoption was a definite improvement over the French practice of using oil-soaked rags to stopper wine bottles. Cork is both a natural and renewable resource – the majority of cork comes from Portugal where the cork bark is typically harvested every ten years and the cork trees (actually, Cork Oak) live for over 200 years. Natural cork is used on about 80% of all wine bottles produced every year and, believe it or not, there are well over 20 billion bottles of wine produced every year.
In addition to the long history of cork usage and the pleasant (usually!) ritual of uncorking a bottle of wine, proponents of natural cork argue that the cork closure “breathes” and allows a small amount of oxygen to interact with the wine in the bottle helping it age and mature. There does appear to be evidence that a natural cork closure is not a perfect seal, but does allow some interaction to occur between the wine and the outside environment. The appearance, ritual and romance of opening a bottle of fine wine (is there a better sound than the “pop” of a cork?) is deeply ingrained in the retail side of the business including fine restaurants, bars and wine bars. For many people it’s just not the same if the sommelier appears at your table and, with a flourish, unscrews the cap on your $75 bottle of wine!
The screw cap closure was introduced to the wine industry in the 1970’s with the promise of making wine more accessible and in eliminating the occasional problem of “corked” wines (more on that to follow). The screw cap is simple and easy to use – just twist it to break the seal and unscrew it. No need for a foil cutter or corkscrew and no need to worry about the cork breaking or not coming out. Just twist off the screw cap and enjoy. Proponents argue that the screw cap technology does allow breathing to occur but more importantly it eliminates the concern about “corked” wines.
So what is a “corked” wine? Corked wine refers to a wine that has been contaminated with cork taint (a chemical compound known as TCA) that is formed when natural fungi found in cork come in contact with bleaches or other common compounds used in winemaking. Cork taint is not dangerous to human wine consumers, but lends a musty smell and taste to the wine. Frankly, it smells somewhat like dirty sweat socks. In our experience (which is typical for the industry) we encounter about 1 corked bottle for roughly every 100 bottles that we open. This is not good, but part of the price of using natural cork. It’s also the reason that we are careful to taste every bottle that we open at a tasting event before we offer it to others.
At Jazz Cellars we continue to use natural cork, but primarily because the bottling line we use is not set up to use screw caps as closures. We would certainly like to get rid of the risk of “corked” bottles, but we are still not sure that the majority of restaurants and wine bars are ready to embrace the screw cap. What do you think?
PS – Ever open a bottle of wine and have the cork break and actually fall into the bottle? Of course you can decant the wine (through a strainer), but if you are at a party, you can amaze folks with a simple trick to get the cork out using just a chopstick and piece of twine. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you back the instructions.