Put a Cork in it? Screw That!

Last weekend I showed up to a party, proudly presenting to the host an exceptional bottle of Four Vines Zin from a recent tasting foray in Paso Robles, only to be met with a raised-eybrow when she noticed it had a screw top.

Wine snob, amiright? And not even a legit wine snob. If you’ve been geeking out on wine closure technology lately, you know she was revealing not just her snootiness, but her ignorance too.

When screw top bottles were first introduced back in the 1950’s, they generally topped the kind of cheap jug wine that was better suited to the stewpot than the wine glass. But a whole bunch of science happened in the past half a century, and now screw caps are more high-tech and they do a more consistent job at keeping wine in - and air out - than traditional cork stoppers. That’s a really good thing. Mostly. Let me explain...

While storing wine, keeping rampant oxygen incursion at bay is crucial. An oxidized wine is, eventually, vinegar. It loses its complex fruit flavors, goes flat, shifts toward a brownish color, and eventually gets mixed with olive oil to become a tasty salad dressing. On the other hand, the wine aging process can benefit from a little bit of oxygen. In fact, for more complex reds it can be crucial to their maturation. The tiny amount of oxygen that seeps through a good cork mellows out tannins, making them less harsh, while allowing them to retain their velvety mouthfeel. So the more permeable cork is often preferred over the screw top’s more complete barrier. Not surprisingly, technologists are working towards screw caps that allow for calculated levels of oxygen seepage, making irrelevant the cork’s last remaining winemaking advantage.

If you consider the facts - that 3 to 5% of all corked bottles end up, well corked; that corks are more expensive; that corks are less convenient to open; and that technology will soon take from corks their one winemaking advantage - well, then the cork vs. screw cap discussion seems pretty much moot. So why is the cork still overwhelmingly preferred by premium wine makers?

Simple. Corks are a beloved tradition. There’s a ritual that is difficult to abandon: removing the foil, twisting in the corkscrew, pulling out the cork, and then thoughtfully examining it to ensure it remained unimpaired (and to let others know you are a refined wine aficionado). And let’s admit it, the distinctive THWOP sound a cork makes as it’s tugged from the bottleneck is an announcement that good times are about to start.

In the long run, however, I predict the cork tradition will subside, and screw tops will win out. Do I believe this because of advantages related to consistency and cost? Yeah, partly. But mostly, I think corks will become a relic due to a more simple, more compelling reason. Screw tops get wine into your glass faster.

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