Getting Closure

Cork has been the principal closure for wine bottles for hundreds of year. Cork has served its purpose well, but corks are not the perfect closure. Corks break, crumble, leak, and facilitate something called cork taint that we’ve talked about in previous columns. Estimates are as high as 1 bottle in 12 being contaminated with cork taint, although most experts feel the number is more like 1 in 7.
The wine industry is actively seeking alternatives to cork to improve quality and prevent the losses associated with corks. One such alternative is the synthetic cork. Winemakers like these plastic stoppers because they are compatible with their existing corking equipment. However, many consumers, including me, hat them. The plastic imparts a slight plastic odor to the wine and they are a really difficult to get out of the bottle.

Most agree that the alternative with the greatest potential is the screw cap. Screw caps have been around for several decades, but they have never made significant inroads on cork. But as winemakers get more and more fed up with cork, the momentum seems to be moving towards screw caps. The leading screw cap closure is the Stelvin® capsule. This cap has an aluminum alloy shell with a polyethylene liner. As the cap is screwed down, the polyethylene liner is compressed, creating the airtight seal.

The biggest push behind the switch from cork has come from, Australia and New Zealand. These producers got serious about screw caps in 2002-2003 and now it’s almost impossible to find an Australian or New Zealand wine with a cork. The United States has been much slower in adopting screw caps and there is much debate as to whether screw caps are really superior to cork.

Screw caps are Convenient, easy to remove and reseal; they don’t require corkscrews or other engineering marvels to open; there’s no cork taint; they allow bottles to be stored upright and you never have bits of cork floating in your wine. On the other hand, cork is steeped in tradition; is more esthetic than screw caps; doesn’t require wineries to buy new equipment; and, the really controversial advantage, they allow wine to age.

There is an argument that screw caps do not allow wine to age. Cork does not provide a completely air-tight seal, and allows tiny amounts of oxygen into the bottle over very long periods of time. Many experts feel that this miniscule amount of oxygen is necessary to the aging process. So, the argument goes that screw caps are great for low-grade wines, but quality red wines will not age properly without corks. You could say that corks imperfections are one of its principal assets. No one will know whether this is a valid argument until a high quality bottle of red wine with a screw cap has been allowed to age for many years. We’ll just have to wait and see.

This argument really doesn’t carry much wait in the larger debate because the vast amount of wine produced is purchased and consumed within two to five years of being bottled. So, we will probably see more and more producers moving away from cork and to screw caps or some other, yet to be developed alternative. But, we will probably never see the complete demise of the cork. There will always be a few bottles around that require a corkscrew and go “pop” when you open them.

Cellar Notes

I was fortunate to attend a wine tasting hosted by Mothers Against Cancer last week. Their wine list was unique in that it didn’t contain Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio or any of the familiar grape varieties. These wine got great reviews from the guests, so I thought you might enjoy them as well. Many of these wines are available at area grocery stores. All are available through the local Spec’s, although some may have to be brought up from the downtown Specs. All are well under $20 and all are quite good.

Viognier (white)
Cline Cellars
Carneros – Sonoma California

Bordeaux Blanc (white)
Mouton Cadet
Bordeaux – France

Pinot Noir (red)
Chalone Vineyard
Chalone – Monterey California

Malbec (red)
Familia Barberis Winery

Liar’s Dice Zinfandel (red)
Murphy Goode
Dry Creek & Alexander Valley California