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Two Women on Wine: Bottle battles -- screw cap vs. cork

Cork taint has led to more ‘alternative’ closures

Posted: March 18, 2010 4:16 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2010 6:04 a.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier

For baby boomers who remember the days of Boone's Farm and Blue Nun, screw caps on wine bottles have a long-standing stigma associated with cheap, soda pop wines. But as all things old are new again, the screw cap has reinvented itself as a superior closure that has caused even a few daring Frenchmen to sing its praises. Hard to believe, but true.

To cork or to cap? That is the modern day question. True, not every winery is rushing to adopt the newest, trendiest closure. But some are certainly adventurous enough to take the lead by introducing wine lovers to the benefits of going non-cork.

Since the 17th century, wine bottles have been sealed with natural cork. The cellular composition and elasticity of cork make it the ideal closure for wine bottles. However, the problem with cork is that it's a natural material made from trees and must be sanitized before evolving into a wine bottle closure. A chemical compound used to sanitize the cork before it is bottled is called trichloroanisole (TCA), and is the main culprit responsible for "cork taint."

How can you tell if a wine is tainted or corked? Think moldy papers, damp cloth or wet dog. Unfortunately, spoilage can only be detected after bottling, aging and opening. It is estimated that five percent of wine production is affected by TCA. Because winemakers are frustrated with this high incidence of cork taint, they began adopting alternative closures.

Screw caps entered the wine market in the 1970s when used to bottle cheap wine. Caps are manufactured and not a natural substance, providing a more uniform seal than corks. The leaders in screw cap or Stelvin closures are Australia and New Zealand. However, U.S. producers like Plumpjack Winery, Bonny Doon and Hogue Cellars (just to mention a few) have begun to embrace the Stelvin closure on their wine bottles. Screw caps are now the closure of choice on wines in all price ranges.

The truth of the matter is that recent trends indicate that most wine is bought and consumed when the wine is purchased or within two to five years of bottling, making a good argument for screw caps as an acceptable closure. Additional alternative closures used in the industry are synthetic corks, vino-seal and zork corks.

Synthetic corks are made from plastic compounds designed to look and pop like a real cork. However, they are difficult to open and re-seal, and are not the most popular closure.

Vino-seal is a glass cork that creates an air-tight seal preventing oxidation. This closure is expensive and not widely used by most wine producers.

Zork cork, originally developed in Australia, is a plastic material that opens like a container of milk, and seals and pops like a regular cork. This is a fun, easy to open closure.

With these different types of closures now being used, wine producers are making great strides in developing methods to remove most of the TCA from natural corks. Their goal is to reduce the incidence of cork taint so that cork remains the traditional, acceptable way to seal a bottle of wine. The battle of wine bottle closures surely continues.

For the purists among us, we still like the romance of hearing the pop of the cork when opening a bottle of wine. Keep in mind that the quality of the wine or price of the wine in no way relates to the way the bottled is sealed. As we remind everyone, "As you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you also shouldn't judge a wine by its closure."



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