Sunday, 5 May 2013

Screw Cap or Cork?

(image from net)

Being a wine newbie (okay, I'm not so much of an idiot anymore after 4 months in a wine-related job, huh), I've been wondering what's the deal with the wine bottle cap. I believe that, generally, a lot of people believe that a cork means that the wine is of better or higher quality, hence, would taste better. But this seemed to be a misconception, as I have learned from our wine sommelier. 

A bit of info on corks first. Wine corks can be a single piece of cork or composed of many small particles. A cork made of particles are referred to as 'technical cork'. 

Single Piece of Cork
(image from net)

Technical Cork
(image from net)


On a technical cork, you can see that the top and bottom has lines, showing the cork discs placed on each end. 

Majority of corks across the globe come from Portugal; some come from Spain and Italy. Cork has a lot of uses aside from wine stoppers:  floor and wall tiles, shuttlecocks, fishing rod handles and musical instruments. 



Both have their one benefits, pros and cons. Cork has been the wine stopper used by winemakers for hundreds of years. It comes from a renewable source because cork can be harvested from the bark of the cork tree without harming or killing it. Amazing. Winemakers use cork as wine closure for a lot of reasons, among which include the following:
  • Cork is light and low in density.
  • Cork is compressible and flexible. It can be compressed to half its width without expanding its length and still maintain its flexibility. 
  • Cork is resistant to moisture penetration. Despite its lightness and flexibility, it doesn't allow water or moisture to get in (or out). 
  • Cork retains its properties despite extreme temperatures and lasts for years without deterioration.
  • Cork is biodegradable. 

But cork is not perfect. Corked wine, as you may have guessed, is caused by the cork. No, corked wine doesn't mean that there are small particles of cork on the wine. Corked wine refers to a wine that has been contaminated with cork taint. Cork taint is caused by the presence of a chemical compound called TCA or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. This TCA is formed when naturally-occurring airborne fungi combine with chlorinated phenolic compounds, substances which can also be found in pesticides, bleaches and preservatives. This cork taint affects the smell and taste of wine. Although it is not harmful or poisonous (don't worry, you won't get sick from corked wines), nobody would really want to drink wine that is corked.

Screw cap is a metal cap that screws the neck of a wine bottle with a metal skirt in a length meant to resemble the wine foil. In Australia and New Zealand, screw caps are now used more widely than corks. Winemakers use screw caps for these reasons (and more):
  • Screw caps prevent cork taint since there is no cork which might be contaminated with TCA
  • Screw cap is modern while cork is viewed as traditional
  • Screw caps are more consumer-friendly, can easily be opened with bare hands, without the need for bottle openers
  • Screw caps are easier to put back when you need to cover the bottle again while some corks can be difficult to put back in

So what's the deal then on wines with screw caps and corks? 

It's more of consumer perception and preference, I would say. Until now, a lot of people still perceive wines with screw caps to be cheaper or of less quality than wines with cork. Some are also looking for that cork 'popping' sound which goes with the celebration mood of opening a bottle of wine. While screw caps are undermined for the quality, it doesn't really compromise the taste and aging ability of the wines as opposed to corks, as a lot of winemakers who have embraced screw caps would say. Australia and New Zealand produce great wines and their market are huge makers of screw-capped wines. 

In terms of convenience, I personally vote for screw cap. Based on experience, corks can sometimes be annoying, especially when you're not really good at removing them. There's a chance for you to break the cork while using the bottle opener then it all breaks and drops to the wine. And, of course, you need a bottle opener with cork. Screw caps are convenient. I can bring it to a party without having to bring an opener or asking if the party host has one. 

I'm not saying I'm opposed to corks at all. There are instances when corks change the entire presentation and mood with wines. Champagnes or sparkling wines, for me, are still best served by corked bottles. That 'pop' is just a classy factor with bubblies! But, again, the 'pop' does not ensure great  quality. 

As a consumer, I would suggest fellow wine drinkers to choose wines based on what you read on the label and good advice from a sommelier instead of looking at the cap. Taking note of food that you will dine your wine with is also important. If you're not sure of what wines to serve, I strongly suggest getting advice from the experts. Find a good sommelier you can talk to. Or better yet, start exploring more wines for yourself and identify which ones (and which aren't) are great.

Don't judge the wine bottle by its cap. Cheers!