Wine Adventures

The Great Cork Controversy

Corks. Screwcaps. What’s the big deal?

The debate rages on, and now it’s starting to swing in an unexpected direction.  The ferocious argument has to do with the venerable cork, used for centuries as a wine bottle stopper, and its opponent, the newer-technology screw cap.  (By the way, winemakers would prefer that we call them “twist-offs.”)

Why, after all this time, has the industry started to drift away from cork?  We’ve been using them in wine bottles for over 700 years.  Well, there’s a reason, and it’s all because of a fungus.

It’s called TCA, and I won’t clobber you with the polysyllabic technical name.  (Stephen Burch and I did talk about this during our seminar in New Orleans).  TCA is a fungus that infects cork, which is, after all, just the bark of a certain kind of oak tree.  This practically-indestructible organism lives in the wooden pallets in wine cellars and on other unlikely surfaces.

TCA, or cork taint, as its most commonly called, spoils wine.  At worst, it makes the precious liquid in the bottle taste like wet cardboard or newspapers.  At its mildest, it robs the wine of flavor components and makes it taste…well, blah.

In fact, winemakers estimate that between 5% and 7% of all wine bottled under corks gets spoiled.  People open the bottle, taste the wine, and pour it down the sink.  Imagine if you had a factory and five percent of your product turned out to be defective.  You wouldn’t stay in business very long.

Hence the move toward more neutral, non-reactive stoppers, such as screw caps.  The charge has been led over the past ten or fifteen years by New World wineries, especially in Australia and New Zealand.  The advantage:  no TCA, and the closure is supposedly perfect for wines that are going to be consumed within a couple of years.

But what about other wines?  Cork, being slightly porous, allows small amounts of air into the bottle, which helps break down tannins and makes the flavor components come together and harmonize.  And it’s true that bottles sitting around for 20-30 years will be slightly less full than newer bottles.  The wine disappears – it goes somewhere — so air must be getting in or out.  However, cork does break down over time, and collectors who have bottles that are 30-40-50 years old often get them recorked every couple of years.  The really expensive high-end wineries provide such a service.

My advice?  Don’t worry about it.  The mistaken perception that only lower-quality wines have screw caps is left over from the old jug wine days.  In fact, many top-quality wines are being bottled with screw caps.  Example:  Mollydooker “Carnival of Love,” a blockbuster Shiraz from Australia, was Wine Spectator’s #2 Wine of the Year last year.  It costs over $65 a bottle and guess what…  Screw cap.  The closure is ideal for wines that are meant to be enjoyed in just a few years…or tonight…which is most of them.
So if you have even one opposable thumb, that’s all you need to open and enjoy great wines.