Sunday, June 25, 2017

Corks or Screwcaps?

Since the sudden rise of cork taint in the 1960s, the wine industry has been exploded with alternative closures to seal bottled wine. The main cause of cork taint is the presence of a compound known as TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) that leads to a musty fungal or wet cardboard aroma in the wine. While it is not harmful to the consumers, it definitely takes away the pleasure of enjoying a nice glass of wine.

Among the alternative closures with their corresponding pros and cons, the screwcaps in particular have gained quite a bit of traction in the new world, especially in Australia and New Zealand. While I am partial to natural corks for my cellar-worthy wines, summer calls for easy drinking. And who wants to fuss with a corkscrew at a picnic when you can twist the cap off a bottle of fresh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and seal it shut again?
Rulo Winery in Walla Walla only use screwcaps 

While screwcaps remain a favored alternative, one common complaint is that it does too good a job
of keeping oxygen out and does not allow the wine in the bottle to breathe and mature. This can sometimes lead to "reductive taint" or the smell of rotten egg in the wine. However, winemakers are getting good at correcting the problem by adjusting the amount of sulphur dioxide added to the bottle prior to closure. (Yes, sulphur dioxide is often added during bottling to stabilize the wine, but that is a topic for another day.)

For cellar-worthy wines, a little oxygen over a period of time helps the wines develop and mature in the bottle. Contrary to popular belief, natural corks do not allow outside oxygen to enter sealed bottles. But because corks are made up of mostly hollow cells, oxygen from the corks themselves is gently and gradually released into the bottles to further age the wine.

As one might expect, the technology of screwcaps has progressed to offer a small amount of oxygen leakage from the cap into the wine, mimicking the same function in a cork. So we may see more and more cellar-worthy wines using screwcaps in the future. In fact, there are some wineries who have gone completely screwcaps for all their wines, including those that you can lay down to age. Rulo Winery from Walla Walla is one such winery.

With a steeper competition for closures, cork producers have also come up with more stringent procedures to reduce the incidences of TCA, like ensuring proper harvesting and treatment of cork. In addition, technical corks (which are essentially cork-based closures) are often treated to prevent TCA and available as less expensive options. In fact, I use technical corks for my homemade wine.

A mix of natural and technical corks
My Verdict: Just as there is a wine for every occasion, there is a closure that fits every type of wine. My rule of thumb is that if you drink your wine young, a screwcap is not necessarily a bad thing. But I would probably pause if I see a screwcapped bottle of Barolo or Burgundy. However, if you trust a particular winemaker, then it may be worthwhile to keep an open mind about his or her choice of closures.