Kate Murphy

Kate Murphy

There is an ongoing debate involving screw-caps and the cork and some would insinuate that wines with screw caps are not up to par for their palate. You could say this debate is almost as big as the 2016 elections. ... OK, that might an exaggeration with this particular election, but cork vs. screw cap is certainly a hot topic in the world of wine.

To lovers of fine wine, the cork carries a long tradition of nostalgic lore. Is there any sound more satisfying than the pop of a cork as you open a favorite vintage? However, the logic behind the use of screw-caps — threat of cork taint — is highly valid. What we have at play here are two opposing ideals, turning the cork vs. screw cap debate into what I believe is a head vs. heart issue.

The screw cap emerged in response to the presence of a chemical identified as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which is considered the primary cause of cork taint. TCA is created when molds combine with other naturally occurring chemicals, which can be found at the winery, in corks or even the trees they come from. Additionally, wine taint can be traced back to moldy cellars, fungus present during the process of producing cork, or biochemicals used to sterilize or treat facilities and equipment.

TCA’s characteristic odor or taste is most often described as moldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement. The result: cork taint or “corked” wine. Although harmless, TCA contaminates the wine’s native aromas, most likely making the wine undrinkable and destined for an abbreviated life down the drain. Once you have really tasted or smelled a corked wine, you will know. It is not subtle.

The percentage of corks sullied by TCA depends on who you ask and varies widely among industries. I’ve seen the number range from 1 to 15 percent of all wines bottled. Although 15 percent may not seem like a lot with the trillions of liters of wine produced annually, your opinion can quickly change when that $350 bottle of 1990 Chateau Margaux is rendered undrinkable because of a contaminated cork.

Screw caps, practically speaking, seem to offer the perfect wine closure: no taint, no oxidation, no special tool to open, no problems. Today, Stelvin screw caps are finding their way into more and more bottles of wine. Developed by the French in the late-1950s, Stelvin caps were created to replace wine corks in an effort to reduce the occurrence of cork taint. These screw caps are designed with special liners on the interior that create a ventilation system to allow tiny amounts of air in for wine maturation. To date, there isn’t a lot of research on how wine ages with the screw cap closure, but a significant number of highly regarded wineries are taking the plunge and “screwing” it.

Australian and New Zealand wineries have led the charge in using screw caps and the U.S. is cautiously following suit. State-of-the-art wineries like Napa Valley’s PlumpJack have helped popularize the trend by using a screw cap on their wines, including their $300 Cabernet Reserve, thereby opening the floodgates for dozens of West Coast wineries to make the switch.

European wineries have been the most hesitant to adopt the screw cap closure, an ironic twist of fate considering the Stelvin wine cap was created and introduced by a French-owned company.

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Cork advocates reason that the cork allows the wine to receive a gradual ingress of oxygen, providing it the mellow, complex and developed character found in aged wines. However, as oxidation during the aging process is still under debate, I believe the real reason most wineries remain loyal to the cork rests more in its image and a fear that consumers will not be as willing to pay good money for a bottle of wine with a screw cap closure.

I would very much miss using my collectors’ corkscrew from Chateau Laguiole and that wonderful, festive sound as the cork pops from its bottle, but I don’t foresee the demise of natural cork in the near future. The cork offers tradition and a proven track record. This debate will likely stay alive and strong.

I also believe screw caps are here to stay and I predict they’ll continue to permeate the wine market even as studies and research in this debate carry on. However, doesn’t it all seem rather silly, considering we, as consumers, are fine with screw caps for premium scotch and vodka? Also, with the screw cap, it doesn’t matter how you store your wine — neck up, neck down or laying on its side — the bottle will age just the same.

The screw cap is one of the most significant pieces of technical evolution that the wine industry has faced since glass bottles were introduced more than 200 years ago (before this, wine was sold by the barrel). In a field as filled with tradition as wine-making, it’s going to take some time.

Kate Murphy is the wine writer for the Quad City Times. She can be reached at kate.murphy@lee.net.