Screw cap or cork? My money is on the screw cap

By / Magazine / March 13th, 2018 / 10

For my palate, my money is on the screw cap.

I’m familiar with all the arguments that diehard corksters use to defend the use of tree bark as the ideal wine closure:

  1. Cork allows the transmission of oxygen to enable wines to age gracefully over decades.
  2. Aesthetically, cork is more pleasing to the eye and the hand than a piece of tin.
  3. The ritual of opening a bottle under cork is more romantic and theatrical than the twisting off of a screw cap.

But what outweighs all these rationales is the moment you open a cherished bottle you’ve been cellaring with care for that special dinner, only to find the wine smells as if a skunk had wandered through your dining room.

In other words, the wine was “corked” — tainted by the interaction of the acids in wine with residual mold in the pores of the cork. This interaction creates a chemical called TriChloroAnisole — TCA for short.

There are degrees of TCA in all cork-tainted wines, rather like the Richter Scale. At, say, level 1 or 2, the problem is barely perceptible to most consumers, which is why a second bottle of the same might not taste as good as the first. TCA at the lowest level can flatten the flavour of the wine without necessarily being detectable on the nose. When TCA reaches concentrations of, say, 3 and above, the wine smells like the sewer has backed up into your basement.

The incidence of corked wines is falling, mercifully, as cork producers have become more scrupulous in how they cut the cork trees, dry the bark, punch out the cork lengths and bleach them. But one “corked” wine is one too many when the problem can easily be remedied with a screw cap.

Australian and New Zealander winemakers led the charge for screw caps in the 1980s, and most wines from Down Under today are twist-offs. Even Penfolds bottles its expensive ultra-premium wines with screw caps, although they do ship their iconic Grange to North America under cork (because they believe the market demands it). Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago has conducted in-house trials that show his wine bottled under screw cap will age just as well as those bottled under cork.

Australia’s other legendary winemaker is Stephen Henschke, who bottles his majestic Eden Valley Shiraz, Hill of Grace, under screw cap and his Hill of Roses Shiraz under Vinolok, a resealable glass stopper with an inner elastic ring. No cork for him.

Dealing with the argument that screw caps make a hermetic seal that doesn’t allow for the exchange of oxygen, the manufacturers have devised special plastic liners that copy cork’s oxygen transmission rate. This micro-oxygenation is what allows the wine to mature slowly in the bottle.

While there is no consensus among wine industry stakeholders that wines under cork age better than those under screw cap, there is no argument that white wines in screw cap bottles taste fresher than those under cork. And the majority of consumers are not going to cellar wines for a decade or more anyway.

While I am on the same side as the tin brigade when it comes to closures for red, white and rosé, I would draw a line in the sand when it comes to Champagne. Keep cork closures for Champagne and please, please, don’t go to crown caps (which is what Champagne bottles are closed with before they’re disgorged and dressed for the market).

Final note: Another benefit of screw caps is that you don’t have to store the wines lying down. So if I were you, I’d think twice before investing in companies whose major business is the manufacture of corkscrews.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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