Over the course of the past month I have been asked a single question more then any other, are corks or screw caps better? This has been a controversial issue in the wine world for some time now, but the fact is that it has been answered by practical matters time and time again.
The purists believe that using a cork is the only way to go. This is kind of like the baseball writers who hate the designated hitter in the American League; these people are horribly resistant to any change to tradition. The progressives want to evolve and improve upon lessons learned. They want what is best, even if it means going against traditional ways of doing things. Going back to baseball, who the heck wants to watch any pitcher take hacks at the plate (it is like watching a baby deer try to walk for the first time).
I must admit, my beliefs are a hybrid between the two. On the one hand, there is something very romantic about opening a bottle with a corkscrew or ah so. However, if you have ever had a bottle of corked wine, you will know why this argument even exists. It is estimated that 3%, and potentially as much as 7%, of all wines that use real corks are, in fact, corked! That is an extremely large number of bottles when it comes down to it. Corked wine occurs when wine comes in contact with a cork that is contaminated with TCA (2, 4, 6-Trichloroanisole). The most obvious sign of a corked wine is that it will take on the musty smell of wet cardboard or a damp basement, yuck! The other, less noticeable sign is if you are drinking a wine that you are familiar with and it does not have the normal characteristics (i.e.- freshness or berry forward taste), then it may be corked.
Note: If you happen to come across a bottle like this, immediately attempt to return it to the store where you made the purchase. Depending on their policy, they may exchange it for you!
Anyways, back to the debate!
The argument in favor of natural corks is one that is one part tradition and two parts proven practical analysis. The tradition part is obvious, but the research is equally credible. Well-crafted, traditionally bottled wines have an outstanding track record of maturing gracefully over decades (sometimes even centuries!). This aging is due to two sources, the oxygen trapped in the bottle between the liquid and cork, and the barely traceable amounts of oxygen that comes in through the cork. This oxygen allows a wine (usually a red) to soften, while at the same time develop in taste, sight, and smell. The results speak for themselves, but I do not recommend trying to age a bottle of Barefoot, shame on you for even considering it!
The argument for screw caps is that ANY air allowed into the bottle will ruin the wine. Although this is obviously an exaggeration (but not in all cases), there is a point to this. If you prefer the freshness of a young wine, then screw caps have been proven to keep a wine fresher for longer due to the fact that NO additional oxygen gets in. In a Wine Spectator article a few years back, a bottle of Penfold’s 389 was aged using a screw cap, a cork, and refrigerated. The results of the screw cap were consistent with the bottle that had been refrigerated for the same time (once below a certain temperature, the air in the bottle will have no effect on the wine). Interesting?!
Well my conclusion is as follows:
1) The classic Cabernets, Bordeaux, Burgundy Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo should never use screw caps. Simply put, it would tarnish the romantic appeal of even owning one!
2) Wines crafted to be light and fresh should certainly entertain the idea, even in medium to low end Burgundy reds (pretentious fools). It is working with Oregon Pinot, why can’t it work with Burgundy’s non-Classic Pinot Noirs as well?
3) When it comes down to it, it is a matter of preference. My biggest take away is DO NOT look at the screw cap as a sign of lesser quality, just a different way of doing the same thing!
Oh, don't even get me started on synthetic corks!