In the deep recesses of cramped winemaker offices, a fierce fight has erupted between cork and screwcap. And you’d think the elder brother would be winning, but he’s not. A few years ago, winemakers became fed up with “tainted” corks. Up to 10 percent of these closures contain a compound called TCA that contaminates wine, imparting a musty, wet dog flavor and smell. (It’s called being “corked” and this problem birthed the artful server dance called “tasting a bottle” in restaurants). Since the monopolistic cork industry sat on their hands and didn’t attempt to fix the problem, winemakers sought out a solution. They found it in the humble twist-off.
But Portugal’s cork tree country hasn’t gone down for the count. They’ve launched a multi-million dollar “I Love Natural Cork” public relations campaign which stokes today’s hot issues: “Natural cork in your wine bottle does more than just preserve and improve the quality and character of your wine,” their website reads. “It preserves a centuries-long way of life in the rural communities of the Mediterranean cork oak forests, its incredible wildlife as well as the planet by absorbing CO2.” They even include a pledge sign-up, goading guilt-ridden consumers into avoiding screwcap and plastic cork wines because it’s the environmental thing to do. Now doesn’t that make you want to hug a cork tree grower? Methinks they fear the competition.
After eons of arrogance and with their bottom line bruised, cork industry dominance is nearing the finish line. New Zealand and Australia have gone cuckoo for metal and now almost 80 percent of their wines are under screwcap rather than cork. Even American wineries — daring in a culture hyper-obsessed with appearances — are embracing their use, mostly for their white wines. Worldwide, 15 percent of all bottles sport metal tops and that number grows yearly. No wonder the cork industry is freaking out.
There are, however, two sides to every solution. Regardless of the taint Russian roulette, bottles stoppered with corks do allow minute amounts of oxygen to enter and coax the liquid into flavors of caramel and dustiness, giving it that “aged” appeal. Oak tree plugs also have history on their side. Used since the ancient Egyptians and Romans, they reportedly replaced rags as the closure of choice. And cork removal is decidedly sexier than the metallic crack of a screwcap closure.
Wet dog smell, however, can kill the mood.
Despite years of passionate editorial copy and PR, many American consumers still equate screwcaps with Mad Dog 20/20. It’s been a grueling Ali-versus-Foreman bout, but it boils down to this simple, now proven fact: Screwcaps keep wine fresher than cork. Gwyneth Olsen, winemaker for New Zealand’s Villa Maria Estate, has been working with metal closures for the past five years. A vehement supporter, she likes the fact that “the wine we put in the bottle is what the consumer gets.”
Naysaying wine collectors, however, doubt the age-ability of wines under screwcap, saying red wines require oxygen to develop. Until recently, winemakers couldn’t discern if aging was possible, but I learned first hand what aged screwcap wines taste like during a seminar at Washington State’s Hogue Cellars (read about that trip). Sampling red wines dating back to 2003, they tasted like they were frozen in time – as vibrant as the day they were sealed. Same thing happened with the white wines but time has its way with everything. The Hogue Genesis 2004 Riesling revealed a hint of honeyed richness associated with age peeking out from the glass.
For the majority of wine drinkers, this debate might be, well, debatably relevant. But since winemakers craft wines to be drunk within two years after bottling, this might change the rules. Imagine not ever having to ask if a bottle you received five years ago would still be drinkable? With a screwcap, it’s conceivable the grog could still taste like the winemaker intended. And that’s a big win in the wine scheme of things.
Some great wines under screwcap: