Corks vs Screw Caps: Which Should You Choose?

Corks vs Screw Caps: Which Should You Choose?

Recent years have shown the advent of the screw top bottle. While staunch wine traditionalists continue to scoff at this new trend, it continues to grow in popularity. Read on to find out why.

corks spilling out of a wine glass

Put a Cork in it! 

The good ole cork has been a staple of our wine since the 1400's. Cork bark is notoriously malleable and easily fits, and seals, a glass bottle. This provides air tight protection, keeping air out and wine in. It's a natural renewable resource, it's historic, it's breathable, it lasts for long aging wine, and let's face it, there's just nothing better than the feeling of pulling that cork out of the bottle. It's a symbol of a good time that can literally trigger a relaxation response. Breathe a sigh of relief, the wine is open! I have to say, all I'm seeing here is pro, pro, pro. So why would we ever turn our back on our faithful cork companion?

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It's not Me, it's You.

The truth is, we didn't. Our cork buddies turned on us. We trusted them for years, decades! And how do they thank us? With Cork Taint! What is cork taint? Buckle in guys, we're gonna get technical, but I promise it will only last for three or four sentences. Cork Taint is a musty or earthy character in our wine that masks the overall fruit aroma. This infected wine is also referred to as "Corky or "Corked." 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA as it's commonly known, is the chemical compound found in the cork that causes the taint. While it does not cause illness, it can affect the taste of our wine, to the point of making it undrinkable but there are much greater issues at stake.

Up until about 20 years ago, the only option for sealing wine was a natural cork cap. This cork is

harvested from the oak cork tree, Quercus suber, about once every seven years of its life. Now, the options include not only the natural cork, but also the technical cork, which is made of cork particles,synthetic caps, and screw tops.

According to one estimate, Cork Taint is causing about 10 billion dollars in damage to the wine industry annually! That's some serious damage. Another estimate says as many as 1 in 20 bottles will be rendered useless due to the cork.

Related: 3 Ideas for Leftover Wine

Between screw caps and natural cork options, screw tops allow for significantly less oxygen ingress (amount of oxygen that gets into the wine). The less oxygen per month, the slower the aging process goes. If you are looking for a wine to keep in your cellar, the screw cap bottles, in general, will keep for a longer period of time.

If a bottle of wine is stored upright for a significant period of time, a cork can dry out, and shrink. This will allow possible contaminants in, possibly resulting in the bottle of wine becoming undrinkable. Cork taint affects approximately 5% of all wines with natural corks. It would be quite the spectacle to see this happen with a screw top.

Even with the best corkscrew, natural corks can degrade with time, making them fall apart when you try to remove the cap. This is not a concern with screw-on caps.And we need to put the stereotype of screw-on caps mean cheap wine to rest! Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of Washington's oldest and most prestigious wineries, now uses screw caps to better preserve its wines.

A drawback is that while wine bottles and containers can be recycled, screw caps usually cannot. Natural corks can be repurposed, and are even finding themselves the medium for unique craft projects. Twist-on caps usually end up in the trash and eventually, take up space in landfills. 

For wines that do not need to age, a screw cap is a perfectly acceptable option. Traditionalists might balk at this idea, but times, and wines, have changed. So have social issues, including a population boom and figuring out where to put the trash. So if you are opening up a white or rose and notice you don’t need a corkscrew, rejoice!

Reds, on the other hand, do benefit from aging. Even after they are purchased, some people cellar these wines and wait patiently for them to develop an optimal flavor profile. If you elect to do this, please make sure the bottles are stored properly to preserve the integrity of the cork. The last thing anyone wants is to open a perfectly-aged Barolo and discover it is ruined!

Related: Learn about Aging Wine Underwater

Restaurants need to give this matter a lot of thought. Some people might get upset when they order an expensive bottle of wine that does not come with a natural cork. Train your staff on how to handle these situations in a personable manner. In the case of Chateau Ste. Michelle, share the story with guests. They might find it interesting and reconsider their views on screw-off tops.

If you are entertaining at home and a guest raises an eyebrow at a bottle with a screw top, you can always start an impromptu game of “find the corkscrew” and let hilarity ensue!

Related: How to Open a Wine Bottle like a Pro

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bucket of wines with screw tops


Screw Top to the Rescue

It's no surprise then that so many wineries are starting to investigate some cork alternatives. Some countries are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of us. Although the French invented the first prototype of a screw cap for wine, it was purchased by an Australian company. Check any section of Australian wine in your local liquor store and you'll see they've taken the screw cap and ran with it.

With the screw top, and other alternatives, you have no risk of cork taint and you have a way more affordable option. And while corks can vary in levels of oxygen ingress, a screw top produces consistent results. Looks like we've got a lot of pros ranking up on the screw top side! 

Let's consider one more plus. Picture this: you're picnicking with several friends and one of them forgets a corkscrew. With a screw top, it's no corkscrew, no problem! There's no longer a reason to oust that person from your social group and ban them from all future parties. There you have it. Screw top: saving friendships since 1964.

So does this mean the screw cap is the end of all our problems? Not quite.

Forget the Trees, Save the Wine! 

This is of course a dramatization. But while screw caps and plastic polymer corks are recyclable, they are not biodegradable. Not quite as good at the completely natural option. You also have the lack of tradition to contend with. The wine industry is notoriously stodgy about their traditions after all. I've even heard complaints that plastic corks are harder to get back into the bottle to preserve left over wine. Seriously folks, just finish the bottle! Some people...

Like most things in life, there's no clear answer on which option is better. But it is clear that neither is completely out of the question. The age of screw tops being solely for cheap wine is over. Whether or not we agree, screw tops are here to stay. And quite frankly it's worth a try. Just like wines on tap, wine in kegs, and upscale box wine is worth a try. The wine industry will continue to grow and change. And that is a beautiful thing.

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