Wine: cork versus screwcap?

Most of us are concerned about getting into the contents of a wine bottle, and not how to close it. But wine blogger, Jamie Goode, of Wine Anorak shows us why we all need some closure

It's strange to think that the issue of wine bottle closures would be of particular interest to anyone outside a small group of wine industry boffins. But it has actually been one of the most heated, controversial areas in the wine world in recent years, with stand-up rows - and even some legal action. Fighting about cork sounds a bit stupid: what's the big deal?

A corker of a history

Well, there's some history involved. The wine bottle/cork combination dates back to the 18th century, when advances in glass manufacturing made bottles cheap and strong enough for them to be used for storing wine. So for the last few hundred years using a corkscrew to pop out the cork has been part of the wine-drinking ritual. And cork has proved to be an almost-perfect way to seal wine bottles, keeping a good seal for as long as 100 years and allowing fine wines to age gracefully.

Tainted love

But cork is a natural material, and every now and then it taints the wine with a musty off-odour that some people liken to mouldy cellars or damp cardboard. This is known as 'cork taint', and it's the reason you are offered a chance to taste the wine in restaurants, so you can check that it isn't 'corked' - not so that you can act like a pompous prat and decide you don't like it.

The wine trade lived with this problem for ages, but in the late 1980s it seemed that the rate of taint was rising. With the growth in sales of bottled wine, the demand for cork was growing, and many suspect that this led the cork producers, most of whom are located in Portugal, to take short-cuts with their quality control. Estimates of the rate of cork taint varied from around 2 per cent of bottles to as high as 10 per cent - it's hard to be sure of the exact figure, but it was clearly unacceptably high. And it's hugely annoying to have kept a bottle for a special occasion only to find out that it's undrinkable because of the so-called 'Portuguese pox'.

Synthetic stopper

In particular, producers in New Zealand and Australia were growing increasingly ticked off that many of their wines were being ruined by corks, and began to look for alternatives. The first alternative to make a serious challenge to cork's supremacy was the plastic or 'synthetic' cork. They proved quite popular - and still are - but they have their drawbacks. First, they can be quite hard to get out of the bottle. Second, they don't protect the wine from oxygen as well as natural corks do, and so wines sealed with plastic corks have a shorter shelf-life and aren't suited for cellaring.

Screw it

Then came the screwcap. In 2000, a group of winemakers from Australia's Clare Valley got together and released their Riesling wines under screwcap. This wasn't the first time screwcaps had been used for wine - they have been used successfully for 30 years in Switzerland - but it was the start of a screwcap revolution that was to spread rapidly through New Zealand and Australia, to the extent that now some 95 per cent of New Zealand wines and 75 per cent of Australian wines are sealed this way.

Dearly departed

Many of the antipodean winemakers became outspoken evangelists for screwcaps, claiming that this was the only way to get the wine to consumers 'the way the winemaker intended'. They predicted that cork was finished as a wine closure. Some of them even held a mock funeral for cork. According to these screwcap crusaders, anyone who still used cork was an idiot. Certainly, consumers in many countries, such as the UK, were very keen on this new way of sealing wine, chiefly because it is much more convenient just to twist the cap off than it is to fiddle with a foil cutter and corkscrew.

The cork industry was running scared. If the success of screwcaps were to be repeated in other countries - particularly France, Italy and Spain - then cork producers would be ruined. Reluctantly at first, they began to invest in research to try to reduce the problem of cork taint, and waged a PR campaign claiming that cork is the 'natural', sustainable option, with a lower carbon footprint than aluminium caps.

A wine reduction

In their rush to adopt screwcaps, many winemakers failed to understand that this new closure is quite different from cork in that it forms a very tight seal that allows very little gas transmission. Consequently, while screwcapped wines avoided the problem of cork taint, some of them were displaying an off-aroma known as 'reduction'. The cork manufacturers could barely conceal their glee. So what's the situation now? It seems that cork taint rates are falling a little. It also seems that winemakers are getting the hang of screwcap, and screwcap reduction is much less of an issue than it used to be. Some winemakers who switched to screwcap are now switching to cork; others from traditional markets who were initially opposed to screwcaps are now beginning to adopt them. Cork has lost its monopoly position for all time, yet it seems that for some wines, at least, it still has a future.

Wine bottles

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