The process of corking your wine is the last step in the production process, but your choice regarding the best seal for your handmade creation can have a transformative impact on the taste of your wine. In some cases, it can even ruin your wine and render it undrinkable. Two popular choices when it comes to sealing bottles today are corks and screw caps.
What’s the Difference Between Corks and Screw Caps?
In Europe, corks have been used to store wine as far back as the early 1400s, and many winemakers today consider a bottle without a cork to be incomplete. Corks scream tradition to these producers, and they simply won’t do without it. However, in recent times, winemakers in countries like Australia and New Zealand have popularized the usage of screw caps as an alternative. In this section, we’ll describe both seals in great detail.
All-natural cork in the world is derived from a particular species of tree called Quercus Super. Portugal produces half of the all-natural corks sold globally. It is a resource that is both, recyclable and biodegradable. However, around 3% of all bottles sealed with corks are affected by something called ‘cork taint’, which is chemically known as trichloroanisole (TCA). This compound is remarkably pungent and can be detected even if only 5 parts of TCA are found in a trillion equivalent units of liquid.
It gives the wine a strong cardboard taste and has a strong musty smell. Spoilage can result in heavy losses for traders, and in disappointment for wine lovers who have carefully aged their wine for years. This is especially relevant given that natural cork can be quite expensive, and are generally reserved for more expensive bottles.
Check out “How to Cork Wine Correctly” for tips on sealing that bottle of wine you have.
These losses led to producers seeking alternatives to save their wine from spoiling, and thus emerged the screw cap. It became so popular that until recently, only approximately 30% of all bottles were sealed with corks. The rest of the share was occupied by screw caps, as well as other alternatives such as glass stoppers (called Vino seals in the US). However, there has been a resurgence in cork popularity due to a concentrated effort to reduce contamination.
Thinking of opening that corked bottle of wine at your house? Take a look at “How to Uncork Wine Without a Corkscrew” for tips on how to open that bottle without a corkscrew present.
The Benefit of Corks
A major factor affecting the quality of corks is that many producers do not use 100% natural cork to seal their wine. They instead utilize cheaper alternatives like an agglomerated cork. These corks often contain glue and are terrible for wine aging. The proliferation of better choices, like synthetic cork, has emerged as a viable competitor to screw caps, but they are not natural and miss the indispensable advantage of corks that we have yet to discuss.
Screw caps became popular in the late 1950s and have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity since. They are cheaper, and better at preserving wine by inhibiting oxidation. You don’t have to worry about crushing the cork while trying to remove it because they’re easier to use. On top of this, screw caps also guarantee complete protection from trichloroanisole (TCA). However, two things stand in the way of screw caps permanently replacing corks. Firstly, their record with storing wines meant to be aged is debatable. Secondly, while many dogmatically stick to corks due to their traditional appeal, there does seem to be some truth to that claim. We’ll explain.
The indispensable advantage of corks that we mentioned is that many wine experts believe that they are simply better for aging wine. This is because older wines do need some oxidation to enhance their taste, and the tightness of screw caps can be a disadvantage in this case. However, others claim that screw caps are better at keeping the wine fresh for longer. As such, screw caps are generally preferred for wines meant to be consumed young, while wine bottles meant for the cellar are sealed using cork, but the issue is by no means settled.
The Benefit of Screw Caps
Regarding the more esoteric benefits of corks, researchers from Oxford University found that corks perform better than screw caps for an odd reason: the sound they produce while being opened. They discovered evidence to suggest that this sound has a positive priming effect on the drinker, who, in the study, enjoyed uncorked wine more despite tasting it blindly. They also found proof that the cork opening sound was great at generating a festive mood at parties, which also enhanced the taste of wine. This indicates that the traditionalists holding onto cork might really have been onto something.
Also be sure to check out “How to Recork Wine like a Pro” for a guide to conserving your wine at home.
Bottom Line: Which is Better?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask another one, how long do you intend to age your wine? If the answer is around a year or less, screw caps are the way to go. If it’s for upwards of three or four years, you should probably consider natural cork. Do make sure that it is natural cork that you’re purchasing, and not agglomerated, synthetic, or any other variant. They can look fairly similar but are vastly different.
Inconclusive reports on the effect of screw caps on long term aging and the lack of historical force have prevented screw caps from replacing corks altogether. Many experts once thought the cork doomed, but it continues to be a popular choice today and holds its own unique advantages against screw caps.
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Bottoms up! We’ll uncork ya later!! 🍷