Screw You – Wine Cork vs. Screw Top

Look, it’s only my opinion, but being a bit of an old fart with very definite opinions about everything, I really need to tell you this. I hate screw caps on wine bottles. OK, I know the offered stats; ten percent less corkage problems, saving money…blah, blah, blah. But I still hate the bloody things.

I know that corks can be a pain sometimes and I have seen (and even read) the odd intelligent article about the percentage of bad corks per case of 12. Yes, it is true that every bottle lost to the cork is an awful waste, especially if you have been saving that wonderful grand cru you bought on your last trip for a special occasion – but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Life should be a series of gambles, and yes, of course, many of the wines you buy you won’t be aging and don’t actually need a cork at all. And I guess it is true that those underprivileged Portuguese cork trees can’t keep up with our voracious drinking habits.

So what would be the result of moving away from the traditional cork stopper?  It could be said that this switch is regrettable for a number of reasons.  Producing cork is a very old practice that keeps the cork trees, which are mostly located in Portugal and Spain, alive.

Truth be known the cork industry is very much helping to sustain one of the world’s most bio-diverse forests. Many believe that the cork trees are actually chopped down to produce the cork. Actually the trees are in fact not chopped down; the outer bark is removed, by hand, in a 9 year cycle and in this way the tree absorbs much more carbon dioxide! Natural cork is the only closure option for winemakers that want to minimize their carbon footprint and adopt better practices in relation to environmental performance

On a more personal note; when it comes to matters of sensual pleasure, I am a traditional guy. Wine is a pleasure for all our senses, with the innocent cork holding a myriad of sensory gratification. The sight of the cork being expertly corkscrewed and gently eased out of the bottle, the gratifying thump it makes as it is released and the imperceptible sigh of relief one feels when seeing that the cork is whole…I for one refuse to sacrifice 50 per cent of my wine pleasure to be offended by the thuggish and distasteful crack of a screw cap!

Just envisage being in a fine restaurant with your special other and the wine waiter shows up, exclaiming: “Your wine sir/ madam,” and then this dreadful crack as he turns the screw. And get this…the other day, while dining in one of my favourite haunts; I took the unusual step (for me) of ordering a bottle of Aussie Chardonnay. OK, so my partner for the evening didn’t drink red wine and I was looking forward to a successful evening of all the sensual pleasures, so anything she wanted she got. To cut a long story short, after the not-so-bright waitress brings me the bottle, she proudly shows me the label, deftly screws the top off and………offers me the cap to take a sniff!

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I proceed to try and lecture the poor girl on why one doesn’t need to sniff the screw cap and of course come across as a complete pompous ass, which truly pisses of the waitress, I get in a huff, my date thinks I am a jerk and there goes the whole evening.

But I am willing to be charitable here and concede there may be other solutions.

Great wines that are intended to age need the real thing, real cork from Portugal or Spain and preferably of good quality. All the others can use those artificial rubber corks. They do the job adequately. They won’t mess up what is left of Portugal’s countryside, there are no “bad” corks and one still gets a sort of cork experience. So if the answer is that simple, why do most New World wine makers insist on screwing around with screw caps?

One reason is cost. A cork can cost a winery from 25 cents to more than a dollar; this together with the cost of the bottle, label and case. So saving some of that is appealing to wineries. Well you can’t really blame them for it and the wine within is still generally high quality.

The second reason is the myth (the claim has never been corroborated) that one in every twelve bottles of wine was “corked” – had an off-taste due to corruption of the cork. But like much of the self-absorbed holier than thou nonsense spouted by the so called wine experts, it is just not true. MAYBE one bottle in one hundred has cork taint, and to be honest, most of the time even the most experienced noses and palates cannot detect it. So I just don’t buy this argument.A further theory is sometimes also offered – namely that screw caps were a “Green” solution. The argument that all the corks we were using for wine was destroying the world’s population of cork trees. As I have already mentioned and explained this one is complete nonsense. A cork tree is not killed when its bark, which makes wine corks, is harvested.

I guess I am just leading up to the controversial wine debate:  Old World Tradition versus New World Innovation. And the notion that high alcohol wines with too much sugar are found mainly in the New World. For reasons of environment and tradition, the Old World wines have usually been more controlled, less alcoholic and recognised as better aging wines. But with the rise of the globetrotting winemaking consultant and the emergence of the New World wineries, the issue of tradition versus modernity is once again on all wine lovers’ lips.

Basically the New World wine makers, led by the Aussies have an ambiguous attitude to “hang time” (the length of time grapes are allowed to stay on the vine before harvesting) and sugar accumulation – the ensuing high levels of alcohol and the cordial-like consistency meet their market demands. On the other hand, the French…well; there is much swirling around in the French wine industry these days that lends itself to controversy. Sales are falling, overproduction is rife; the French themselves are not drinking as much. Calls for a reduction in alcohol consumption are coming from do-gooder activists in all corners and many of the more reasonably priced New World wines have taken over from French varieties in traditional export markets. For the French, wine has always been a great source of national pride (as has chauvinism). The ripeness debate will heighten the discussion in France over what it means to be “French” and what it means to adhere to traditions that have made them the envy of the culturally inclined across the globe.

So what is the right answer? Well as always we should focus on the juice inside, rather than the packaging. Having said that and as I have already confessed; I have an unshakable preference for corks in my wine. I enjoy the ritual and anticipation of opening it, and I believe that wines simply age better under the miniscule amounts of air that pass in and out of a bottle of wine under cork.

So maybe I am just Old School. Decide for yourself – but don’t hesitate to try any wine simply because of the closure.

To quote a good Gallic friend of mine: “When we pick our grapes we want fruit and freshness. The taste of prunes does not interest us.” Which, roughly translated, means: screw you and the New World wine barrel you rolled in on.

Some Opinions of Different Closures;

Wine Corks:

Pros: Cork has a long history; it has been used as the sealing method of choice for over 400 years. They’re a renewable resource (the trees are not killed when the bark is stripped to make cork). They’re readily biodegradable. And they support an entire industry of corkscrews and other cork-removal products.

Cons: Wine Corks often go bad. Estimates vary depending on which figures you believe, as little as 1% or as much as 20% of all wine sold is “corked,” which is to say, damaged by a problematic cork.) Wine corks can be difficult to remove, and sometimes break off into the bottle.

Plastic: the New Wine Cork

Pros: Plastic is immune to cork taint, so wine is much less likely to spoil. Depending on the vintner’s tastes. They’re recyclable. And the same cork-removal equipment can be used.

Cons: If not recycled, plastic corks also pose a more direct threat to the environment. The plastic may not retain its elasticity well over time, making it unsuitable for wines meant to age for decades.

Screw Caps:

Pros: Screw caps, like plastic corks, avoid problems of cork taint. They are less expensive than natural or plastic corks. And they can be removed without any special equipment.

Cons: As with plastic corks, screw caps imply environmental issues associated with the loss of cork farming.

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