Unlike the wine inside the bottle, which evolved greatly in the couple of millennia we’ve been drinking it, the cork, so necessary for keeping the wine in the container and the air out of it, has barely progressed at all.
You may be surprised to learn that corks drive winemakers crazy. Due to the growing popularity of wine throughout the world, and the relative paucity of cork trees throughout the world (they grow almost exclusively in Portugal and Spain), winemakers are having a harder and harder time getting quality corks for their wines. As if that weren’t enough, the bleaching process used to disinfect corks can cause the formation of a chemical called trichlorophenol (TCA), which results in such an unpleasant smell that the wine is said to be “corked” or “corky” and it ruins the enjoyment of the bottle. Once you’ve encountered a corked wine you’ll never forget it - - it’s a musty, cardboardy smell. Up to 5 percent of all wine is “corked,” and according to Wine Spectator magazine, corked wines cost winemakers and consumers between two billion and three billion dollars a year.
To that end, some winemakers are experimenting with synthetic corks. Since they know that wine lovers may miss the traditional aspect of real corks, some try to make them look real. Others use brightly colored synthetic corks.
But synthetic corks won’t solve one aspect of the problem that also conspires to drive winemakers' nuts and that is that consumers sometimes have a rough time removing these corks from bottles. This discourages them from buying wines that use them. There is a solution at hand, but it goes so counter to the image and mystique of wine that many winemakers are reluctant to use it: the screw top!
Recently groups of winemakers in both New Zealand (Marlborough) and Australia (Clare Valley) have gone exclusively to screw tops for their fine wines. Wineries all over the world are looking very closely at the reactions both by consumers and people in the wine trade. So far the feelings are positive.
In a document put out by the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative they note that they are committed to the screwcap because it works. “Screwcaps do not introduce the risk of extraneous ‘taint’ to the wine: instead, they allow the wine to mature and develop without outside help. The result is a wine showing true characters developed by the wine itself, as intended by the winemaker”. The go on to point out that screwcaps have been effectively protecting food and beverages for more than 30 years and provide an easy opening solution to the problem that many have in trying to remove a cork.
Two questions that often come up are:
“Will screwcaps allow a wine to age?" The answer is YES! James Halliday, the dean of wine writers in Australia notes that “there is sufficient oxygen in the wine and in the head space to allow that part of development which requires oxygen to take place, and – what is more – much of the development will take place anaerobically (without oxygen)." The additional benefit is that you don’t need to store bottles horizontally anymore to keep the corks wet. Because there is no leakage of gases through the screwcap you can either lay them down or stand them up.
“What about the “romance” of pulling the cork?" They point out that the romance of wine is in the wine itself and with a screwcap you’ll never again have disappointments due to tainted or oxidized wine.
For all of us wine drinkers, it looks like there are lots of screw caps in our future!
It seems that the longer it takes to get those screw caps, or Stelvin Closures, on major amounts of wine the easier we will accept the premise.