To Cap or Cork, That is the Question – a Question Already Answered

To cork or cap. that is the question, or no, maybe not. Wineries around the world are fleeing real cork closures and have for a few years now. There are pros and cons, and the cons were more prevalent than the pros when the cork industry, mainly Portugal, didn’t take that smelly old dirty sock and wet cardboard nuance, or genuine blast to the olfactory organ, seriously enough for wine producers. You will read that only the most sensitive noses can pick up the taint, and mine is not among the “most sensitive,” but I know a corked wine when I should. Little is more disappointing than to buy a bottle of wine that should be so fine, and instead smells like the inside of a gym locker. In a restaurant setting, you can send it back and the wholesaler takes the hit, but likely not when you’ve bought it at a wine shop, and certainly not when you have cellared it for awhile. The TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) responsible for the contamination or taint of the cork isn’t very interesting and it isn’t harmful, but it’s never found with the use of a screw cap (the Stelvin being the industry standard) unless there is contamination elsewhere, like inside the glass bottles.

Stelvin "Screw Cap" Closure

Stelvin “Screw Cap” Closure

Whether cork or synthetic or Stelvin, the purpose of a cork is to keep air out, but with big red wines, those capable of aging, some of which actually benefit from some minute amounts of air pampering the wine along over the years. The most famous Bordeaux, Burgundies and California Cabernets…we just don’t know how they will fare with a screw cap 15 or 20 years out or more, but with wines on most wine lists and on retail shelves today, you’ll find that a screw caps works just fine. In fact White wines benefit from the extremely tight closure of the screw cap, allowing them to present in your glass as fresh and bright and lovely as you love them.

In 2002 a solemn trumpet solo at New York’s Grand Central Station announced the arrival of a hearse, from which funeral directors lifted a casket containing “Thierry Bouchon” – a dummy made of cork (tire-bouchon is French for corkscrew). The world-renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson delivered a eulogy which began, “Oh Cork. Oh Cork. Oh Corky, Corky Cork. How we shall miss thy cylindrical barky majesty…” The man behind this elaborate stunt – a pastiche of a scene from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s late-19th-century novel A Rebours (Against the Grain) – was Randall Grahm, founder of California’s Bonny Doon winery. “I didn’t quite anticipate it would mark such a flash point,” says Grahm.

The Portuguese cork industry was not laughing. It’s unlikely most witnesses of the stunt or readers of the widespread press coverage got Grahm’s obscure literary joke, but they did get that he’d put 80,000 cases of his Cai de Solo wine in screw-capped bottles. This was the largest US bottling to date of a fine wine – before this, screw-capped fine wine was an oxymoron. As Robinson announced in the course of the eulogy: “The great big supertanker SS Screw Cap has set sail and there will be no turning back.” Source: The Guardian

So then there’s the cost. According to the article below from 2011, a “natural cork” costs 8 cents to 28 cents each, depending on quality, and a synthethic cork 3 cents to 4 cents. That seems amazingly low to me when you understand how cork is harvested and how less than frequently.

What about all the rumors of a worldwide cork shortage? According to Mollet, cork production is fully sustainable and there is no truth to these claims. “The problem is the wineries,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at cost.” He explained that natural corks cost 28¢ each, while lower-grade 1+1 conglomerate corks and powdered corks cost 8¢, and a 100% conglomerate cork costs 4-5¢. Meanwhile, plastic corks cost 3-4¢ each. Mollet lamented the rise of synthetic closures and said, “Look, this cork is ecological, biological and natural. If we lived in the US or the UK, we’d be marketing this product heavily. But the Portuguese government has their hands in their pockets. So, winemakers are moving to plastics to cut costs, not watching quality and not knowing what goes into the wine.” Source

Cork Harvest

Cork Harvest

Portugal has 75% of the world’s cork oak trees. The average life span of a Cork oak tree is about 150 to 200 years, but by law, can only be harvested every 8 to 14 years, and must be 25 years old before the first harvest.Think of that. Think of all the corks you’ve trashed or put in pretty glass vase, gallon jug or baggie. Yet the corks keep coming, or at least they did. The article linked above from 2011 says business is down drastically as the wine industry moves on to synthetic closures or the Stelvin.

World's Oldest Cork Tree, The Whistler in Portugal

World’s Oldest Cork Tree, The Whistler in Portugal

The Whistler, seen at the left was planted in 1783 near the town of Åguas de Moura in the Alentejo region of Portugal. The tree was first harvested in 1820 and is harvested at most every 9 years. Bottles of wine with the Whistler corks were reportedly found in France in a cellar, with the wine still in good condition.

In 1991, the bark of The Whistler produced 2,640 pounds of cork, “more than most cork trees produced in their entire lifetime.” The 1991 harvest provided corks for 100,000 bottles of wine. In June 2000, the harvest was only 640 pounds – still 10 times more than the average cork tree yield.

Today many in the industry like a properly constructed screw cap, believe it better seal than a cork and the consumer is beginning to take to the ease of opening (some are quite gleeful). It requires a wine bottle with ‘grooves for the screws’ as seen in the first photo above. The caps are made of aluminum:

“If you look under the top of a twist-off, you’ll see a liner, typically a polymer one that meets food-safety guidelines (and is in fact the same stuff that surrounds a lot of the food that we eat). Wine is exposed to the glass of the bottle and this food-safe polymer lining—very different than beer sitting in a can made entirely of aluminum.” Source: Wine Spectator

Having said that, it’s possible, but not likely that a screw cap can cause sulphidisation.

Anyone have a memory of this?

Pepsi Cola Cap with Cork Inner Liner. Click the pic for source.

Pepsi Cola Cap with Cork Inner Liner. Click the pic for source.

Australia has been experimenting with cork v screw caps for 30 years. Hogue Cellars started the trend in the U.S. by releasing a 30-month comprehensive study of cork v. screw caps.’ The results showed that not all screw caps are created equal and red wines age particularly well closed with a competent screw cap. On the other side, famed Australian producer, Penfolds, has moved from the screw cap back to cork (the article muses that the move might be a bit political).

Among reputable wineries using screw caps for some of their labels (in alphabetical order): Beringer, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Conundrum, Cuvaison, Hogue Cellars, J. Lohr Winery, Jacob’s Creek, Nobilo, Matanzas Creek, Meiomi, Plumpjack, and Silverado Winery.

In the meantime, a web search reveals numerous ways to remove cork taint: charcoal, plastic wrap and NASA even came up with a remedy. The truth is, I seldom open a bottle and find it corked. It does happen, not often, but then the more you uncork, the more opportunity for taint, and to repeat, the dirty sock smell cannot always be blamed on the cork; sometimes oak barrels are the culprit, contaminated glass on the bottling line or other equipment, and chemical compounds used within the winery. I shop the wine, not the closure. Screw cap and bottle photo courtesy of Larry The Wine Guy. Pepsi Cola Cap courtesy of Object Project.

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2 comments for “To Cap or Cork, That is the Question – a Question Already Answered

  1. David
    March 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Very interesting article. I don’t buy wine to age anymore so I am a huge fan of screw caps. I have old reds in my “cellar” and almost always have problems with the cork when opening them. I usually decant those wines but it still makes it more of a hassle.

  2. March 7, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Hi David, I’m sure some of the red makers are experimenting with their long-lived red wines. It will be interesting to see what the total lack of air does. I love the screw cap.
    Maggie@MaggiesWine recently posted..To Cap or Cork, That is the Question – a Question Already AnsweredMy Profile

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