There is just something special about opening a bottle of wine with a cork. It’s romantic, it brings back good memories and, after a long day, seeing the cork pop out of a bottle has an immediate calming effect on me. Robert Mondavi loves having his popular wine quotes printed on his wine corks and one of my favourite cork inscriptions is that printed on the De Toren corks – “Wine gladdens the heart”.
But over the last decade, the cork has had competition! Many wine lovers have begun to question whether the cork is the best enclosure for wine? Screw-caps have been gaining ground at a rapid rate over the last few years and when one speaks about corks there are numerous different variations and types that can now be used. So which is the better option: the newer screw caps or the traditional and romantic corks? In order to find an answer, we need to first know what faults can be found in wine:
Oxidation occurs when oxygen mixes with wine in the bottle which effects its flavour and quality. Oxidation gives wine a sweet jammy smell similar to port or sherry. Badly oxidised wines can also turn brown in colour – especially white wine.
How can a wine become oxidised? Small amounts of oxygen could seep into a bottle between the cork and bottle neck which effects the wine. This is why the way in which a bottle of wine is stored is of utmost importance. A wine bottle should be stored on its side so that the wine inside the bottle has constant contact with the cork, keeping it moist. If the bottle is stored upright with time the cork will “dry out” and shrink, thus allowing oxygen to seep in.
When a wine is referred to as “corked” there is cork taint involved. Cork taint is a compound called 2,4,6 -Trichloroanisole or TCA which manages to get into the wine through the cork. TCA is not dangerous to us but it diminishes the original flavours of the wine and overpowers them with flavours such as wet dog, wet carpet and pool chlorine.
Why can TCA be found in wine corks? Cork comes from the cork tree and is a living substance. As it is a natural product like humans, plants and animals it is susceptible to disease. TCA is a disease. The winemaker is not to blame for a corked wine though as they buy their corks from external suppliers with approximately 40% of cork annually being produced in Portugal with Corticeira Amorim being the leading company in the industry. It is estimated between 5 and 7% of all wine worldwide will be affected by TCA.
So what are the cork producers doing to try and eliminate this? Cork manufacturers have massive processing plants where they try to sterilise the corks to eliminate TCA and make various types of cork enclosures such as agglomerated cork which is made from granulated cork stuck together with glue which can ensure that almost the whole cork is sterilised but Amorim is fighting this battle with a lot of vigour.
On this though there are also various different types of cork which are produced, namely:
- Natural cork closures – made from punching through a piece of cork strip – allows for the right amount of oxygen to come into contact with the wine to allow it to mature;
- Multi-piece natural cork stoppers – made from two or more natural cork pieces which are glued together, can still be good quality – normally used for oversized bottles that require a larger cork such as champagne bottles;
- Colmated natural cork stoppers – have had their pores sealed with cork dust in order to rectify irregularities in the natural cork structure which may lead to an imperfect seal;
- Technical cork stoppers – used for wines which are drunk within a period of two to three years. Consists of a dense agglomerated cork body with natural cork discs glued on one of both ends – chemically stable and mechanically very strong;
- Agglomerated cork stoppers – made from granulated cork glued together;
- Synthentic wine corks – yes, they don’t harbour bacteria, but I’m not even going to entertain this idea.
Then on the other side we have the screw-cap, a perfect seal, cost effective, can age wine longer, but is it as good as cork even with corks faults? The pros are screw caps are numerous, including being more affordable; having the ability to age wine longer than cork and of course being far easier to open.
These benefits are however, contrasted by the screw caps inability to allow breathing of the wine as well as the association with ‘cheap and cheerful’ bottles.
In South Africa we have big names such as Ken Forrester and Jordan Wines moving towards screw-cap. Both cork and screw-cap have their pros and cons and both are probably better suited to different styles of wine. I have no issue purchasing a Sauvignon Blanc under screw-cap which I’d like to consume fresh, but there is no way I’m not going cork for a Cabernet Sauvignon which I’d like to let age for ten years.
Personally I am “pro-cork” as to me screw-cap just can’t compare with the drama and romance of popping a cork! And let’s not forget about all the crafts (Pinterest has unlimited ideas) I can make from my growing collection of corks!
As with all of these debates, I’m very interested to here what you prefer and why, what’s your choice screw-cap or cork?
We don’t have room to keep any wine ten years mor a temperature controlled cellar so screw cap works much of the time. That said, I appreciate watching the sommelier or server skillfully open a nottle with cork.
Kim, I am with you on your comments. I am always concerned with “cork taint” in my restaurant and wine store. I have had quite a few occasions where I have saved special wines for over decade, only to find that the wine had a bad cork! Very sad…
However, that said, I am still fond of the natural cork closure for wines I will age and am willing to take the gamble! I do like the idea of having the screw cap on wines we will enjoy in their youth. It is a cleaner, more consistent closure for everyday drinking wines.
I agree Kim, there is just something romantic about popping the cork from a nice bottle of wine over a great dinner.
While I agree with the pleasing aesthetics of corks, I fear their days are numbered when factoring in cost and environmental concerns.
In Australia, we have moved en masse to screw cap. At the very top end (eg Penfolds Grange) cork is still used, but this is now a rarity.
Cork screws are now the norm, accepted by wine makers, critics and (most importantly) drinkers. Taint is now in the past, as is the need to sample the wine! However, some still persist with this process, probably through habit.
And of course there was that infamous statement made by a fellow Aussie when we were visiting Uluru (Ayres Rock) last year who suggested that corkage had been replaced by screwage…and he was being serious!
The rest of us simply get on with the pleasure of enjoying good wine.
Looking forward to finally seeing Londolozi in August!
I love the romantic idea of cork, but prefer a screw top for an easy drinking wine. Interesting post.
Its worth pointing out that the way to keep a wine with a screw top is on its base and not its side.
As a Luddite I prefer cork but even the best Aussie wines are now screw tops .
Nothing is worse than a corked vintage wine that you have been keeping for years