after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

corked or screwed?

with 5 comments

t says:  Not one to “just let go” of an exhausted topic, I recently found myself reconsidering [again] my stance on the age-old issue of real corks vs. screw-tops for wine bottle enclosure.  For those who are unaware, the traditional enclosure for bottles of wine has long been cork.  And, while it’s been around for such a long time, the truth is that cork is not the most fool-proof enclosure ever “invented”, as there are countless cases of compromised corks (and consequent compromised wines).  Even we here at adsz have written about near-misses as well as straight-up failures of cork – and that’s just in the past 6 months!  I’d guess (as I have no numbers to substantiate the claim) that the two biggest problems with corks are that they can dry out and shrink, thus allowing air to seep in and oxidize the wine (n.b. this does not lead to a “corked” wine) and that they are prone to contamination with TCA (which does lead to “corked” wine).  Screw tops (and other synthetic enclosures) are have less problems with this [if any].  So why put up with corks?  The two most common reasons [that I can think of] are the following:
1)  The tradition/ceremony/romance of removing a cork would be reduced to an action we frequently perform on bottles of soda (or Yoohoo).
2)  Theoretically, the synthetic enclosures would “allow in less oxygen”, therefore preventing the long-term aging/maturation of wine.

While point 1 is inarguable (as it’s an opinion – “de gustibus non est disputandum”), I feel that even with abandoning the corkscrew there remains plenty of wine ceremony with screw-tops, like decanting, swirling, sniffing, etc.  Thus, I really only favored corks because I was a staunch believer in point 2 – I thought it was fact/truth.  But I think I’ve been misled.  As you can see in the hyperlinked post above, the internet author (like many authors out there – this one just happened to pop up on google first) kind of admits that it’s controversial but then strongly states that screw-topped wines would “never” be better with age.  Here, let me copy-paste for you:
other person says:  “Although some may argue with this, I do not believe that a bottle of wine with a screw top is going to improve sitting in your wine cellar for a of couple years. It will taste the same as the day you stuck it in the cellar or perhaps worse, but never better. No oxygen is going to pass through a screw top so those subtle aging characteristics produced by a cork are not going to take place. Corks breathe, screw tops to not. I am not recommending that you shy away from purchasing wine with screw tops but that you are aware that these wines are to drink now. When you purchase wine that comes with a screw top, be sure to drink it within a year.”

back to t:  What the crap?  I might be missing something, but where did those conclusions come from?  Is she/he sure that the oxygen going through cork that’s super-important for aging?  Or the oxygen that’s already in the bottle?  And how did he arrive at the recommendation to “drink within a year?”  As you can see, wine snobs (myself included) tend to be a [sometimes misinformed, yet] strongly opinionated bunch and tend to voice their opinions loudly (especially after a glass of wine), so it’s easy to see how such hypotheses and statements about the shortcomings of screw-tops are propagated …

BUT, that doesn’t mean they’re true.  There exist anecdotes and allusions to scientific-like studies: (at the very bottom)

And now … I’m left wondering who to believe!   On one side, the pro-cork people have “logic” … but they also require the use of “assumptions” (e.g. assuming that air entry via the cork is the most critical component for proper wine aging).  On the other side, the pro-screw people (that sounds weird …) have only some anecdotes and a couple [rather limited] studies suggestive of no difference between the two in terms of taste (and maybe some hints of the possibility of superiority for the screwtop).

The scientist in me (having awoken after a 1.5 year slumber) feels that there just isn’t enough data to take a side … yet.  It is pretty tempting to go pro-screw-top, but they’re going to need some better-controlled real-deal studies if they want to conclude that screw-tops are not worse than cork (“the absence of proof should never be considered proof of absence”).  Furthermore, the scientist in me is quite furious at the wine snob in me for being pro-cork for as long as I have, accepting and spreading the explanation as “reasonable”, “logical”, and even “truth” without the numbers to back it up; it’s dangerous and could lead to misinformation that could have disastrous effects had this been a real-life issue rather than something as frivolous as wine.  As for the wine snob in me – he’s crying after having been verbally abused for the duration of me writing this post.

Conclusion: I’m “retracting” my former statements made to friends and family about the superiority of cork … pending further evaluation by UC Davis and other such impartial investigators.  May the best enclosure win.  And yes, this means that if I meet the wine-of-my-life tomorrow, I will buy it … regardless of its silly-looking screw-top and less-than-sexy noise it makes as you open it.  I’m a changed man.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

31 May 2012 at 4:16pm

5 Responses

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  1. In Germany, many vintners are moving to screw caps, definitely for their basic wines, but more and more now also to their top notch wines (up to auslese level). I talked to a couple of winemakers who use them (or, yet another variant that is much more elegant but less widely used: a glass knob) and they tell me they are sick of the cork problems, they believe that the air that is in the bottle (between cap and wine) is enough for ageing just fine, and also say they want their wines to be in their best possible shape, and see screw as the better guarantee for that…

    From a feeling point, I totally want cork. But I am more and more moved to accept the reasons for screw.

    the winegetter

    31 May 2012 at 5:45pm

    • t says: I have seen the glass stopper only once before and I quite liked it. Plus, it’s reusable and fits various bottle sizes; I’ll open and decant a wine at home, then funnel the wine back into a bottle for transport, capped with the glass stopper, and head to a local BYO. The glass stopper is much more elegant than half-shoving a cork back into the bottle, and I’m not worried if I accidentally leave it at the restaurant!

      One winery I know, Quinessa, does some sort of extensive analysis of every cork for TCA before use – and while this will reduce the frequency of “corked” wines, it still doesn’t obviate the need for humid conditions to prevent cork shrinkage. Maybe they’ll realize that such a practice is just too long a walk for a short drink and that glass is easier? (either way, they do make great wine!)


      1 June 2012 at 8:23am

      • The only winemaker I know who uses them actually wrote his bachelor thesis about them and is therefore a die-hard supporter. I agree on the elegance point. However, I have not found them to be fitting for every bottle. In my experience, they only fit bottles that are made for glass stoppers. He also told me that glass is essentially not more expensive than good cork…

        the winegetter

        1 June 2012 at 9:21am

  2. Thanks for the informative write-up on this topic. I noted on one of my earlier blog entries [Wine 101?] If a bad wine with cork closure is “corked” would a bad screw cap wine be considered “screwed”? :)


    1 June 2012 at 9:08am

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