Isn’t it amazing how a bottle closure can attract so much intrigue! It’s just a bottle closure, after all. And yet I bump into people regularly who are fascinated by the simple cork and unconvinced by an ugly screwcap. Truth is that the cork has dutifully served our wine industry for literally centuries – the Greeks in the 5th Century BC used cork as a jug closure.
Cork has a wonderful, natural sponginess and gives great adhesion against the side of a glass bottle. It is completely renewable because the trees from which it is taken do not die and it’s completely bio-degradable. But cork’s singular most important appeal (or downfall – depending on which way you look at it), is that it is porous and therefore allows micro amounts of air to permeate very slowly into the wine, thus allowing the wine to age very slowly and evenly. Needless to say, wines destined for very long maturation generally favour this form of closure.
Paradoxically, this last point is also responsible for cork being less popular amongst winemakers in today’s faster moving world and many have moved away from it. For all it’s attributes, the bottom line is that cork is not 100% reliable. For one thing, two corks are never the same – one may be more porous than another, therefore how can two bottles ever age identically? A more porous cork may allow more air to enter the wine leading to oxidation. If this happens, you have a potential vinegar issue on your hands. These inconsistencies have caused headaches for winemakers for years.
In the ’90s, the level of poor quality cork was considered to be unacceptable by the Australians and New Zealanders. That part of the world was already researching the benefits of using screwcaps instead of cork and many winemakers were convinced that they would be better off using this more modern day closure.
In simple terms, screwcaps do not allow air to enter wine so the wine is 100% protected from oxidation. Screwcaps are recyclable (although not natural) and infinitely more reliable than cork. The most important advantage of screwcaps is that they preserve the aromatic freshness and youthfulness of wine and this is a major advantage for wines designed for early drinking.
Some will argue that the theatre of pulling a cork has been lost to the rather dull unscrewing of a screwcap. Try telling that to a busy London bar in the height of summer!
Whatever the virtues of each closure, there is no question that the quality of wine plays the most vital role to the ultimate enjoyment – it’s what’s inside that counts!