Wine Screwcaps vs Corks 2005

When you think about the long history of wine, it's amazing that we've stuck with cork for as long as we have. Consider for a moment how wine storage has progressed over the years. In the ancient days of the Greeks, long pottery containers called amphorae were used to hold wine, and seawater was added to the wine. Pitch kept the wine inside the container - but would also "flavor" the wine. The Romans developed glassmaking, but as glassware was all hand-made, glass bottles were not trusted to hold an accurate amount of wine for sales. People would either buy a full barrel, or have the wine measured out at a store into their own container. This would be like you going to a butcher and asking for 1/2 pound of ham. It wasn't until the 1800s that standard sized bottles were able to be made, and therefore used to sell wine directly to the end consumer. These bottles would be sealed with cylinders of tree bark, i.e. cork.

Cork worked reasonably well, but was hardly perfect. Yes, it's better than pine tar! At least the cork was relatively low impact in how it altered the wine's flavor. However, it's still tree bark. As an organic substance, cork can easily get moldy and it lets air slowly seep in and out of the bottle. Many studies have shown that at least 1 out of every 10 bottles of cork-bottled wine is tainted by mold. The taint adds a musty, cardboardy flavor to the wine. Some people can only detect the mold in large quantities, while others can sense the mold in even small amounts. Many people don't realize that the wine is tainted - instead, they believe that they simply don't like that wine's flavor.

Because of the damage caused by cork closures, many wineries are pushing to replace tree-bark cork with screwcaps. Removing the cork from the wine process gives the wine the best possible chance to reach the consumer in an untainted state - to give the drinker the exact wine that the winemaker intended. The sole problem with this change is one of drinker perception. Englightened modern thinkers who never would be seen with wooden teeth in their mouth, and who think breaking little girls' feet to make them look "cute and small" is barbaric, still cling to yanking-tree-bark-from-bottle as a critical part of the wine drinking experience. What is even more bizarre is that those "traditionalists" would deliberately sacrifice wine quality in order to retain the tree bark in their bottle.

Wineries around the world have been running tests to determine just what happens to a wine when it is stored with cork vs. a screwcap. The results have been quite interesting. First, as you might imagine, screwcaps never give any mold taint to the wine. The wine you drink is as crisp and flavorful as it was when it left the bottling line. Next, the screwcap does a much better job of retaining the wine's complex flavors over a long period of time. In fact, one test involved a winery that was not of the best quality. The winery's winemaking process tended to create a wine with initial "off flavors". In a cork bottle, the off flavors would seep out through the cork over time, so that the consumers would receive subtly tainted wine that they could not really bring back as flawed. In the screwcap bottle, that off flavor was kept fully intact right up to the point of pouring out the glasses, and suddenly the winemaking team was forced to fix the problem.

Another benefit of screwcaps involves storing the wine. With tree-bark bottles, it is critical that the bottles are stored on their sides. That is because tree bark will dry out over time and crumble unless it's kept wet. The dry cork will then let in enough air that the wine will oxidize and become less flavorful. With screw caps, it doesn't matter at all how you store the bottles. You can store them top-up, top-down, top-sideways, whatever fits well in your storage space.

Initial concerns about a wine aging well in screwcaps have been laid to rest. Wines stored with screwcaps in the 1980s are tasting beautifully in modern taste tests. There is enough oxygen in the 'headspace' gas mixture of the bottle to provide the slight amount needed for aging, and most of the aging / settling process is done without any need for oxygen.

The move to screwcaps is one the entire industry is taking. New Zealand is currently running 80% screwcaps. Australia will be up to 50% screwcap by the end of 2005.

Domaine Laroche Screwcap Tasting

Convincing wine drinkers to give up on their addiction to tree bark is happening slowly but surely. What helps is that many high end wineries, tired of having their beloved product randomly destroyed by mold, are spearheading the push to convert. One of those wineries is the fine Chablis producer Domaine Laroche.

The Laroche winery began by testing their standard cork-bottled run to examine just how badly cork was altering their fine Chablis wine flavors. Out of a 40 bottle run, only 3 of the wines had the initial, beautiful flavor desired. A full 25 of the bottles had been altered by the cork in a way that was still "acceptable" but was not the highest quality flavor. The remaining 12 bottles had been tainted by a moldy flavor to some degree. It was this experiment that led Laroche to seriously begin converting their winery to screwcaps.

To demonstrate the results of their efforts, Domaine Laroche held a side by side comparison tasting of their Chablis in both cork-sealed and screwcapped bottles. The Federalist's wine cellar in Boston provided a perfect backdrop for the lunch. A rich wood decor gave the tasting room an atmosphere of tradition. Hundreds of wine bottles lined the walls of the room, including decades-old bottles of some of the finest wines in the world. The delicious foods of the Federalist kitchens provided a perfect counterpoint to the wines being served, and helped to bring out their brightest notes.

Michel Laroche himself was on hand to discuss the wines being poured. We sampled 2001 and 2002 Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis, as well as the 2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Reserve de l'Obedience. As we sipped, we first discussed the image problems that screwcaps sometimes face. Michel commented, "This is not very romantic - but Dom Perignon has been in chrome cap for years in the cellar." All sparkling wines are stored for years with metal closures during their secondary fermentation, and only receive their wood cork at final bottling time.

It was extremely informative to taste the Chablis wines side by side. We had the exact same wine from the exact same vintage, the exact same glassware. The only difference between the two wines was that on had touched tree bark and the other had not. The screwcap sealed wine was fresh, crisp, fully flavored, had a great mouthfeel and a lovely finish. The cork sealed wine was much more "muted". One musician in the room commented that it was as if someone had turned down the treble - that the high notes had been lost, and you were only left with the muddy bass notes. We found this to be true with every wine pairing we sampled. We also found this to be true with food and without. The screwcap version was fresh and complex, just the way the winemaker had intended it to be. The cork version had been altered by that cork contact and extra air exchange.

Michel explained that at a comparison tasting he ran the day before, two of the bottles sealed with corks were in fact "corked" - they'd been ruined by mold! Michel had to replace those 2 bottles with alternate bottles in order to fairly do the comparison. It goes to show how prevalent the cork-tainted bottle problem really is.

In closing, Michel did have a comment for those who are addicted to the look of corks and the oxygenation that occurs. "If you prefer it oxidized, you can always aerate it yourself." With the screwcap closure, you are guaranteed that the wine you taste when you open your bottle is as close as possible to the original wine created for you. You won't have taint, you won't have mold, you won't have crumbled cork issues. To me, it's worth giving up the "fun" of pulling a cork out of a bottle in order to have the best wine possible for my dollar.


2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin

Tortellini of crayfish and lobster
giant peruvian fava beans, late harvest corn cream
2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Fourchaumes
2001 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Vaudevay

Miso Glazed Atlantic Halibut
basmati fried rice, lemongrass citrus sauce
2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots
2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos
2002 Domaine Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Reserve de l'Obedience

Assortment of Petite Fours
The Federalist - Thursday, May 26, 2005

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All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.