Wednesday Wine 101: Corks vs. Screw Caps

For most people, wine bottles and corks go together like salt & pepper – and historically that has definitely been the case.  Over the past few decades, though, synthetic closures have been gaining ground and increasing in popularity, sparking debate about what makes the best seal.

Today, we’re looking to get some closure on the debate about closures.

Corks: Stopper of Choice Since, Well, Always

Cork has been used to seal wine bottles about as far back as we know.  An amphora of wine dating back to the 1st century B.C., discovered at Ephesus, in Greece, was sealed with a cork, and there’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Egyptians had similar methods in place for their wine preservation, even as far back as 3000 B.C.

Other options existed (including wood stoppers covered in olive-oil soaked fabric, to provide an air- and water-tight seal), but cork became the preferred choice between the 1400s and 1600s because it offered a more secure seal and was much simpler to use and produce.

Pros and Cons

There are many reasons why natural cork retains its hallowed place in wine culture: it is natural, has a proven track record of safety, is effective for long-term storage, allows wines to “breathe,” and is biodegradable and compostable.  Corks are also relatively easy to remove from bottles, and can be reused to seal the bottle after opening it, if needed.

That having been said, natural cork is not without its problems: because it is a natural product it can be difficult to ensure consistency, which can lead to issues with “breathability” (some corks are better than others at letting in air at a steady pace) and to issues of cork taint (undesirable musty odor or taste resulting from spoilage of the wine – often, though not always, the result of issues with cork stoppers).  Natural corks also tend to be more expensive – especially natural unagglomerated corks which are made from a single piece of cork (the more common agglomerated corks are made by sticking together bits of natural cork with a food-safe adhesive).

New Options: Synthetic Corks and Screw Caps

Screw caps and synthetic corks (made from food-safe polymers) emerged in the 1950s and ’60s and have been gaining ground – especially for everyday wines – since they provide a safe and effective seal that is also less expensive for wine producers, and less likely to be linked to spoilage.  They provide an air-tight seal, and some have even been designed to replicate cork’s natural “breathability” by allowing for the slow introduction of air.  They can be more reliable, since they are manufactured, and studies have shown promising results for long-term aging.  Screw caps are an especially attractive option for home vinter’s and people who make their own wine; they are not only very easy to use (no corkscrew required!), but they can also be sterilized and reused, which makes them a great choice for bottles you’ll reuse batch after batch.

Further Considerations

While man-made options have some undeniable advantages, there are definitely drawbacks, too; while many synthetic corks and screw caps can be recycled, they will not decompose like natural cork, so their mass-use may have environmental costs worth considering (especially in areas where recycling is not widespread, or where facilities don’t exist for the types of plastics used).  Synthetic corks are also harder to extract from a bottle than natural corks, and they can be tricky to put back into the bottle to reseal it, so you might need to have an extra bottle stopper on hand for preserving leftovers.

Synthetic stoppers are definitely increasing in popularity – even with high end wines – helping to dispel the perception that they’re “cheap” options only suitable for lower-quality wines.  In fact, a California winery recently made one of its $100 vintages available in bottles with the choice of either natural cork or screw cap closures, and the screw caps sold out first – suggesting that even premium wine drinkers are now opting for convenience over aesthetics.  Still, there’s something to be said for the historical appeal and natural beauty of the cork!

All things considered, what is your stopper of choice?

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