Walk into any supermarket on any high street and you pick up a bottle of wine for under £10 (in some cases under £5 on offer). Look at the top and where you would have once expected to see a cork planted firmly in the opening to prevent any leakage, you will now almost certainly see a normal lid, effortlessly opened by just turning a couple of times. Due to their placement on cheaper bottles and the earlier adoption of new world wineries screw caps have had a perception hurdle to overcome but their popularity is on the rise.
Cork vs Screw Cap
Young drinkers may not realise this, but removing a cork from a wine bottle is actually somewhat of an art – one slip and the word ‘spillage’ springs to mind, pull to early and the cork can split. Two major reasons why the screw cap excels and yet while some wineries push on while others pull back. The cork originated in the 17th Century being introduced as a replacement for French vintners who before then used oil-soaked rags to contain their wine and is still commonly used for sparkling and full bodied red wines. Yet even wineries of high reputation are making the change to screw-cap or synthetic rubber cork, 95% of New Zealand wineries no longer use cork, André Lurton Vineyards and estates such as Agassac (Haut Médoc) or Malartic-Lagravière in Pessac-Léognan have introduced the screw-cap even amidst the fierce resistance of French culture. So why has the day of the cork come to an abrupt end?
Any wine drinker worth their salt knows that aeration has a profound impact on wine, what many don’t know is that natural cork is not going to give consistent performance. One Cork may be hundreds of times more porous than another, consequently the amount of air which enters the bottle will create huge disparities in taste between two bottles of the same vintage. Although the advantage of natural cork is that it allows a small amount of oxygen into the bottle which can actually assist the aging process this can be replicated with the more consistent screw-cap.
Cork has another adversary however. The bulk of the worlds cork comes from cork trees grown in Spain and Portugal where they are sanitised by a nasty little chemical compound called 2, 4, 6-Trichloroanisole – more comonly refered to as TCA. A wine imparted with Trichloroanisole giving off a musty, mouldy smell, which spoils the aroma of the wine, what we traditionally think of as a “corked” wine. As anything from 1% to 10% of bottles can end up being ‘corked’.
Leaving the Cork Behind
Surprisingly French vineyards were the first to start this process in a quest to eradicate the cork’s taint despite a recent poll putting 92% of the populace firmly opposed to the screw cap. While it is often claimed that screw capped wines are generally cheaper; more expensive wines produced in Australia and New Zealand, opting for the simple stopper, have somewhat put an end to this trend.
Others still argue that cork is in fact the most environmentally friendly stopper and that it lets the wine breathe properly, but it is however more expensive and bottling costs are an issue everywhere, even for boutique vineyards. With more and more modern wines coming complete with the effortless screw top bottle, the day of the cork seems to be fizzling out.
The age old debate between the romance of the corkscrew and the march of progress seems to be largely deciding as it always will in the side favoured by science. This is not to say that the corkscrew and the waiters friend are to be consigned to the history books just yet, their death knell has not yet sounded but it is coming. So what shall we do with all of those corkscrews?
This Guest post was written by The Vineyard, one of the UKs top wine hotels. With a 30,000 bottle cellar and extensive wine list, they specialise in wine matching and wine tasting events.