The squeaky anticipation that comes with uncorking a bottle of wine is akin to the tactile sensation of placing a needle on a spinning record: romantic, nostalgic, exciting, evocative, and above all, a vestige of a bygone era. But with every snap-crackle-pop murmur to life as a record player finds its groove, that needle is slowly destroying your record, and while corks aren’t always bad for wine, they have distinct disadvantages that can hinder the drinker’s enjoyment.
So why do screwcaps, which seem to solve these problems, still get the side-eye from so many consumers? Why do we even use corks? And what about those synthetic corks––why isn’t everyone just using those?
It seems rather ridiculous that one of the bigger ongoing controversies in the wine industry (a Google search yields endless debate on the subject) is how you close your bottle. But packaging is part of marketing, and therefore a huge issue in wine sales: people frequently pick out wine based on how “classy” it looks, and corks have cemented themselves as the most romantic aspect of a wine bottle. Meanwhile, issues of quality, sustainability, and economics keep the topic in heated debate among producers.
Among the closure options for wine producers, natural corks, synthetic corks, and screwcaps are the main contenders, so I’ll compare these three in this post.
Cork is made from a cork tree; you can watch video of cork being harvested online. There are 350 cork tree forests remaining in the world, predominantly in Portugal. Each tree gets harvested once every nine years. Cork oak trees are extremely valuable to their ecosystems, and cork advocates say protecting this industry is important from an environmental and economic perspective. Critics complain that the cork industry hasn’t done enough to address the problem of cork taint (described below), and efforts to do so now are too little too late.
– Because cork harvesting doesn’t kill the tree, cork is a renewable resource, and natural cork is generally considered to be the most environmentally friendly option.
– Though wine aging is hardly an exact science (I’ll do a wine aging post and there will be a lot of ranting in it), wines under cork, which allows the most oxygen contact (albeit a miniscule amount) among all current closure options, have been around a lot longer and are more prevalent in the world, so winemakers, critics, and other industry folk have more experience observing their aging process and can more accurately predict how long a wine will taste its best.
– Cork harvesting is a relatively well-paid job that employs over 100,000 workers throughout the Mediterranean region.
– With their unique texture, the opening ritual, and the winery logo stamped on the side, corks have romantic associations for many drinkers. Like many wine lovers, I keep corks from certain occasions for years and years as a small, light, and simple memento.
– The potential for massive disappointment: the wine you selected smells like a moldy basement (some describe the flavor as more like the smell of a wet dog). Thank 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, a taint that is invisible in the cork but affects anywhere from 3 to 5 percent of wines.
This scenario is a downside enough––who wants to drink a wine that smells like mold?––but what really keeps winemakers awake at night is just-slightly-corked wine. In that case, the taint isn’t strong enough to give off its telltale odor; it just doesn’t smell like much at all. The wine presents as simply lackluster, and rather than take it back to the store (laws on this vary) or send it back at the restaurant, the customer just shrugs and decides never to buy it again, not realizing that the wine they’re drinking is a hapless shell of what it’s supposed to be.*
– Drama aside, you also need a wine key to open a wine under cork. I’ve lived most of my life with an emergency corkscrew in my car, my purse, my kitchen, my bedroom, and now my bike panniers, but should I have to? And we’ve all had the frustrating experience of breaking a cork while trying to open the bottle. Having tended bar at a high-volume restaurant I’ve become something of an expert at saving broken corks from bottlenecks, but in general they can be kind of a mess, and the opening process can be intimidating to new wine drinkers.
– While cork is a renewable resource, it’s not home-compostable, though there are special cork recycling programs; recycling usually happens in the form of those ubiquitous craft projects you see in the homes of people like my friends, who know wine drinkers but are themselves sober enough to follow through on a craft project.
– Bottles under cork aren’t necessarily consistent; storage conditions can dry out a cork, resulting in oxidation, for example. The trope that “there are no good wines, only good bottles” is almost entirely an effect of cork use.
Synthetic corks are made from a polyetheline composite developed by American hockey-helmet-maker Dennis Burns. The first winery where I worked used Nomacorc closures, the second most popular synthetic brand. It’s an affordable option for wineries that eliminates TCA risk but offers customers the “feel” of a real cork.
– Synthetic corks can be recycled, though they’re downcycled.
– There’s no risk of TCA.
– Synthetic corks don’t dry out or crumble into bits when you open the wine, as natural cork sometimes does.
– Synthetic corks are less expensive for wineries than natural cork.
– Far fewer ageable wines have been bottled with synthetic corks. As a result many winemakers are reluctant to try synthetic corks on wines meant for long-term aging, because it’s assumed that they’d behave differently from natural cork. However, research suggests that they may perform just as well.
– When people forget to recycle them, synthetic corks are just more polyetheline in a landfill.
– Wine critic Jancis Robinson finds synthetic corks hard to remove and wrote a delightful rant on the subject.
Pro and Con: You can’t tell whether a wine has a synthetic cork unless you open it or contact the winery to ask. Wine labels aren’t required to state that information, and it’s rarely volunteered. Whether wine label laws and conventions need to improve is a topic for a future post, but here’s a spoiler: yes, they do.
“[The judges] won’t need to see a label to tell the difference between a Mouton Rothschild and a California twist-top red,” a deliciously snobby Alan Rickman sneers in my favorite wine movie, Bottle Shock. I still meet people all the time who associate screwcapped wines with a lack of quality.
Meanwhile, the screwcap is slowly becoming mainstream: 45 percent of New Zealand wines and 85 percent of Aussie wines are twisties, and many South African producers are embracing the screwcap as well. Research done in Australia and Burgundy has suggested that screwcaps are fine for both short and long-term aging, and several progressive producers, deciding that any risk of TCA is too great, took the plunge and decided to be early adopters. Now, screwcaps are becoming more common for everyday wines around the world, and even high-end wineries like Bonny Doon in California are putting their ageable reds under screwcap and advocating for others to do the same.
– No risk of TCA.
– Metal/aluminum screwcaps are recyclable.
– They’re easy to open and require no additional tools.
– Screwcaps are less expensive for wineries than natural cork.
– While research is continuing to be done on the aging process of screwcaps, they’re certainly more consistent than cork when it comes to the amount of oxygen let into the bottle, and therefore afford more consistency in aging. Certainly, screwcaps cause a wine to age more slowly, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
– There’s less evidence on screwcaps’ longterm effect on wine, so most manufacturers guarantee their screwcaps at 2–3 years, tops. Since over 90 percent of wine is meant to be consumed within that time, this only affects wineries producing high-end wines for extended aging.
– Because they used to be seen only on cheaper wines, screwtops still carry a stigma.
Since packaging is a significant part of wine’s carbon footprint, some producers are starting to get more creative, experimenting with wine on tap, canned wine, high-end boxed wine, and other options that keep wine fresh longer and require less glass, plastic, and other materials.
I personally support these efforts wholeheartedly, primarily because I think any industry that relies heavily on favorable climate should be leading the way in environmentally sustainable practices. But it’s also because I can’t stand the thought of outstanding wines showing up corked in people’s homes or restaurants; as a writer, I’d be horrified if I found out that five in every 100 people who saw something I wrote were seeing the results of some kind of nightmarish code fail that made it impossible to read it––or worse, that they were reading my words edited in a way that made them recognizable but uninteresting.
Finally, I think it’s healthy for the wine industry to move away from the idea that “fine” wine only comes in a certain package. Personally, I happily select screwcapped wines and recycle the caps, but I also buy many wines under cork––with a small amount of trepidation every time. And when it comes to my own homemade wine? Until I have the apparatus to put them under screwcap, I use synthetic cork. When you’re only making a case at a time, it’s heartbreaking to lose even a single bottle to TCA.
*Here’s a fun experiment. Next time you get a corked wine––wine should never smell or taste like mold, mildew, cardboard, or a wet dog, so that’s your indication that it’s corked––pour the wine into a decanter, carafe, or large pitcher and float a piece of saran wrap in the wine. I’m not kidding. Polyethylene absorbs TCA, so if you swirl the wine around the saran wrap for five or ten minutes, the cork taint will diminish. In my experience, the saran wrap trick removes the offensive odors, but it doesn’t replace what’s gone: the wine will simply not be its vibrant self. I frequently employ this method at home when there’s nothing else to drink, or at get-togethers when it’s a fascinating wine that I’m desperate to try even when it’s not performing optimally.