I think most of us have a negative view of wines with screw caps. Visions of party nights in college, too many bottles of Boones Farm and Mogen David, and the next day’s inevitable hangover. From Night Train to MD 20/20, screw caps have been synonymous with bad wine. But now, winemakers around the world are working hard to change this stereotype.
A 10-year study by the Australian Wine Research Institute has focused on the long-lasting effects of wine packaging, specifically natural corks vs. artificial corks vs. screw caps. The results were very surprising. Using identical bottles of Semillon, the long term analysis concluded that both the natural and artificial corks exhibited some varying degrees of oxidation, while the screw cap wines showed little oxidation and seemed to be the best solution for long-term storage of wine. Additionally, Cork Taint (also called trichloranisole or TCA) was found in many of the bottles with cork.
So, given certain monetary and qualitative advantages to screw caps, many large wineries have been turning to screw caps, including some world-renowned vintners such as Plumpjack in Napa, CA (Chardonnay, PCLB $56.99) and Felton Road in New Zealand ($30). It’s not at all uncommon to see well-made Australian and South African wines on the shelf with screw caps. International winemakers are seeing the value in screw caps to maintain the quality of their product.
Not without challenges
However, there are a few problems with screw caps, or more specifically, not using corks. Even though cork is a natural substance, it is a renewable resource. Cork is sourced from the Cork Oak Tree, which can commonly be found throughout southwestern Europe. Cork Oak Trees can live for up to 250 years, and harvesting of cork consists of removing the bark of the tree every 9 to 12 years. This doesn’t hurt the tree, and for generations families have used the trees as supplemental income. In fact, it is illegal to destroy a Cork Oak in Portugal. It’s a sustainable $2 Billion dollar-a-year industry in Europe. Therefore, the use of cork is more environmentally friendly than the production of aluminum screw caps.
Another issue is the lack of elegance associated with opening a bottle of wine with a screw cap. Removing the cork has a ritualistic significance in the tasting and drinking of wine. A bottle of wine just isn’t as fun when you can quickly open the bottle, rather than watch your friends and family struggle with one of the many types of wine openers that are available. Wine is a social drink, and sometimes quicker isn’t always better.
So, just because a bottle has a screw cap, it’s not necessarily a cheap bottle of wine. Alternatively, just because cork is a harvested product, doesn’t mean it’s exploitive of the environment. The choice of bottle topping is a complicated decision for both the producer and for the wine drinker, who must ultimately choose between traditional and timeless wine closures and new versions that may limit oxidation in aging wines.