The Great Debate: Corks vs. Screw Caps

Cutting knife wine aluminum capIt is a very long word — way too long for Scrabble: trichloroanisole. I was not all that good in chemistry class, so I won’t even try to pronounce it.

Let’s just agree to call it TCA, okay?

TCA is the chemical primarily responsible for cork taint in wines. When we perceive mustiness or a moldy aroma in a wine, it’s said to be “corked,” and the culprit is the presence of TCA in the cork used to seal the bottle.

During the 1980s, cork taint became such a problem — some estimated that one bottle in 20 could be infected — that winery owners and winemakers began experimenting with Stelvin closures, generically referred to as screw caps. When a bottle was opened, the traditional “pop” sound was replaced with a “crackle.”

One of the reasons cited for the move to screw caps was the simple assertion that no other industry would accept a 5% failure rate with its products or services. Beyond that, wine consumers were becoming more sophisticated, and with sophistication can come a more persnickety attitude. Restaurateurs would tell stories of diners refusing bottles — perfectly good bottles — because the wine inside was “corked.” In reality, they were simply trying to impress their fellow diners with their wine “knowledge.”

Today, more screw caps are being used than ever before, largely because more wines are being made for immediate enjoyment than ever before. With such wines, it makes better business sense to seal the bottles with a nearly infallible closure.

But for wines that are intended to be cellared for several years, most vintners still prefer corks because, unlike screw caps, corks allow a minute amount of oxygen inside the bottle. Too much oxygen would cause the wine to age more quickly than intended; a little bit of oxygen promotes slow aging, giving the wine time to evolve and reach its full potential.

Now, the closure is selected based upon what the winemaker hopes to achieve with wine.

What does the future hold? If I had to guess, we’ll be seeing still more Stelvin closures and fewer corks. A new generation of wine drinkers doesn’t care about the tradition of the cork; they just want great-tasting wines.

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