The debate about whether wine is better enclosed by cork or screw cap has dragged on for several years without resolution. Countless studies have been performed, winemakers have chosen sides, consumers have voted with their cash, marketers, critics, and connoisseurs have weighed in. Have we learned anything from all this controversy?
Compared to screw caps, cork is more expensive, susceptible to cork taint, is of inconsistent quality, and highly variable in how much oxygen it allows into the bottle. In short, screw caps do a better job of preserving the fresh fruit flavors of wine than does cork. Yet, despite these advantages, most wine bottles are stoppered with cork.
Esther Mobley, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, has one explanation:
The question then becomes whether you want your wines to last longer. When Rob Davis, winemaker at cork-exclusive Jordan Winery, did screw-cap trials, “we saw no elevation at all in the wine’s bouquet over a two-year period.” Davis concedes that “screw cap would be the way to go, if your marketing strategy was to not release wines until they’re 10 years old.” But the reality is that most wines are consumed when very young, and corks — through oxidation — allow a fast-track to maturity.
Wines age more rapidly under cork and we (or at least some of us) like the results.
Mobley poses the right question:
Do you prefer your Pinot Noir to taste like cherries or like the forest floor?
Hands down the answer for me is forest floor. If it’s cork that gives me forest floor, barnyard, cigar box, mushroom, and old books inside of 10 years, then its cork I want in the bottle.
Mobley disagrees. She writes:
I’m all for variation — among vineyards, vintages, producers — but not for unbridled variability among bottles of the same wine. We’ll never master nature, nor should we try. But we can, and should, use the tools that we have to manage oxidation.
To each her own but I’m unimpressed with this argument. If I want fresh fruit I can go to any wine shop, buy a recent vintage and enjoy fresh fruit. If I want forest floor (and I do) there is only one way to get it—lay a cork-sealed bottle down for 6-8 years.
As Mobley points out, screw caps do allow some oxygen into the wine and screw caps are becoming more sophisticated allowing winemakers to regulate the amount of oxidation. In the long run even screw-capped wine will show the glorious effects of slow aging. But the problem is in the long run we’re dead (as John Maynard Keynes once remarked). I’ll happily lay a wine down for 8-10 years, 15-20 though is a more difficult proposition.
That of course means that some wines will age prematurely leaving me with an expensive bottle of vinegar. But that is part of the fun. The individual character of each wine as it ages due in part to the variability of cork is at the heart of what is attractive about wine. Mobley’s praise of standardization just leaves me cold.
No doubt for wines intended to be consumed when purchased, which constitutes about 95% of the wine purchased in the U.S., screw caps are cheaper and more efficient. But premium wine should be stoppered with cork not because its traditional or romantic but because its good.