The Olympics are in full swing and as medals are being handed out to champions, we can’t help but wonder: if it were corks vs alternative closures, who would take home the gold? Whether it’s the traditional cork, the synthetic cork, the controversial screw top or the snazzy glass top, there certainly are quite a few options. Come wine o’clock, what’s a wine lover to look for?
As the debate rages on between winemakers and consumers alike over whether to cork or not to cork a wine, all this attention has resulted in significant innovation in cork alternatives and manufacturing improvements. Not sure what side of the cork battle you’re on? Need some closure? (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Ahead, I’ll break down the purpose of a cork, why you might consider cork alternatives, and the pros and cons to each so you can make an informed decision before opening your next bottle… be it with a ritual corkscrew or a simple twist of the wrist.
What is purpose of a cork?
There’s the obvious: keeping the wine from spilling out of the bottle and preventing oxygen from spoiling the wine. But the cork closure also needs to allow flexibility so it can be compressed into the bottle and not slip in or out once positioned in place, and must the wine breathe, but *just a little* and must also not affect the flavor of wine. No small task for a stubby piece of bark! Corks have been used as wine closures since the 1400s, around the same time glass bottles became the preferred vessel for storing wine and they’ve fit together ever since. Cork bark is also one of the few natural, biodegradable products that is flexible enough to fit snugly inside the bottle neck and holds up under temperature change, pressure and other conditions for decades.
So why consider alternate options?
If you read my last post, you’re already well informed about cork taint, one of the biggest risks of using a cork. In short, cork taint (TCA) is created by a microbial compound that contaminates corks and thus the wine it comes in contact with. When TCA incidence rose to close to 10% in the 1980’s, (imagine 1 in every 10 bottles of wine you had being corked!) winemakers began searching for alternative closures to prevent this pesky condition from spoiling the fruits of their labor and love. What followed was a plethora of screw caps, synthetic corks, and glass closures to replace the traditional cork. While screw caps had been around before then, it was Aussie and New Zealand winemakers who started using them for their premium wines. In fact, cork taint became such an epidemic in Australia, that in 2000, the winemakers of Australia’s Claire Valley ubiquitously bottled their Rieslings under screw cap and many wineries even became “cork-free” zones to avoid the problematic cork taint. Screw tops rose in popularity due to their ability to preserve the freshness of wine without imparting strange flavors on it (ever drink wine out of a plastic sippy cup? yuck), the low production cost, and the ease of use. There’s no easier option that requires less equipment to open than the screw cap, and I know from my industry friends who pour wine for a living that they are particularly fond of how quickly they can move service along without having to remove a cork! One concern is that these synthetic closures have not been proven the best barriers to oxygen and thus may cause some degradation in wine over time and are thus best suited for use on bright, light wines intended for early drinking (within six months to a year after bottling). There are exceptions to this rule. Since I’m a California Cabernet lover, let me use the example of California producer, Plumpjack, who historically bottled its Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($135) under screw cap in 2002 providing one solid endorsement for this cork alternative choice. Despite the broader adoption of these alternatives, studies have found that most people still prefer the tradition of unscrewing a bottle of wine, which led to the development of synthetic corks. While these have drawbacks for ageable wines, the benefits are that they’re cheaper, leaving more room for profit for the winemaker and price cuts passed on to the consumer, and they still provide some of the romance of the wine cork removal if you’re a traditionalist. Glass closures are a compromise. They provide the ease of opening that screw caps boast, while still preserving an air of novelty. However, glass stoppers are the most expensive option for producers and haven’t risen in prevalence the way synthetic corks and screw caps have.
Pros/Cons and Verdict?
It’s true…there’s something Pavlovian about hearing the pop of a cork being removed from a bottle that gets our mouths salivating. Cork stoppers seem to be the preferred choice when it comes to the consumer. This isn’t an incorrect bias by consumers since corks tend to be the best option for wines that are intended to age for many years and these ageable wines also tend to be of higher value. Still, there are pros and cons to both. Main advantages to cork alternatives: most are cheaper to produce, you never have to worry about getting a “corked bottle”, screw caps are incredibly easy to open and don’t require a corkscrew. Drawbacks to using cork alternatives: Not great for aging wines and allowing them to “breathe”, not biodegradable (though some are recyclable), vary in quality, some may impart plastic flavor on the wine. Pros to using corks: Good for aging wine, most natural and biodegradable option, associated with higher quality wine, more traditional and preferred by consumers. Cons to corks: susceptibility to cork taint (TCA), can be up to 3x more expensive than alternative closures, though natural, they are a limited resource, and can have variable quality. This being said, with more and more investments in R&D, cork production has dramatically improved and the quality of corks being produced now is higher than it has been in the past, so with most bottles of wine purchased from recent vintages, cork taint should be less of a concern and cost is lower too. This is one of the reasons many wineries are now reverting back to using natural corks as bottle stoppers. I’m a traditionalist who loves the ritual of removing a cork from the bottle, and even the cork as a token to remind me of my favorite wines and the memories that come with every bottle. But I also don’t mind a light bright white wine that is easy to pop open by the pool without the need for a corkscrew. There is a good solution for every wine and every consumer — choose which is best for you in every specific situation, and try not to discriminate based on the type of closure!
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