The Battle of the Wine Stoppers

It’s like they always say: “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

While the debate has gone on for ages, one thing still reigns true for wine lovers: the seal should not reflect the wine inside of it. Think about it. If all you’re after is a great glass of vino, does it actually matter what your bottle comes topped with? Maybe. But probably not. Confused yet? Let’s dive into the age-old debate.

Where did the battle begin?

Shortly after the introduction of glass bottles in the 17th century, cork was adopted as the sealer of choice by wine producers. Cork became the go-to bottle closure for several reasons, including its lower cost and ease of use which, as all vino drinkers know, becomes increasingly important with each successive bottle opened. Corks enjoyed a long, healthy reign as the leading sealer for wine bottles with only minor updates over the years, until the 1970s.

In 1959, a French company developed the Stelvin brand screwcap. In the wine industry, Stelvin has become a brand synonymous with the product it produces (think Kleenex, ChapStick and Jacuzzi). The cap was trialed in the early 1970s in Switzerland, as several of their wineries were particularly affected by cork taint.

Cork taint?

Picture this: it’s the end of the day, you left work two hours late because your manager is trying to ruin your life and you rush to the wine shop minutes before they close. You grab your favorite bottle of red and as soon as you’re through your front door you pop that sucker open. Expecting the wonderful berry and floral aromas to soothe your frayed nerves, you inhale deeply and find yourself getting a strong odor of…wet dog?

That smell is caused by trichloroanisole, most often referred to as TCA, and the main culprit behind cork taint. Wine Spectator has consistently found that up to 6-7% of corked wines were affected by TCA. This compound can work its way into faulty corks during the manufacturing process and, if not caught, can taint the wines in the bottles the corks are inserted into.  While there are no adverse physical health effects from consuming TCA-affected wine, in the situation I described previously, it can be emotionally shattering.

Meanwhile back in Switzerland…

While the Swiss are renowned for their neutrality in wars, in the battle against TCA they were willing to be the front line against the nemesis known as cork taint. Using the same attention to detail that made their watches the finest in the world, the Swiss found a way to prevent cork taint. Basically, they rid their wines of corks entirely and introduced the screwcap method. This method became so successful that it soon grew to commercial use in Switzerland by the early 1970s.

In Australia, however, trials found that while screwcaps were ideal for maintaining the integrity of the wine, there was a widespread fear that consumers would not accept them as equal or better than corked wines. Because of this fear and lack of general knowledge about the shortcomings of cork, screw tops were mostly relegated to wines that were considered lower-quality for the next several decades.

Widespread Adoption

While the rest of the world warmed to the idea of screwcaps to avoid the horrors of cork taint, Australia had other ideas. In typical Australian fashion, when the country’s booming wine industry was told they should stick a cork in it, they simply said “screw it.”

After the world didn’t end in the year 2000, a large collective of winemakers banded together. They decided upending tradition probably wouldn’t end the world either, and sealed 250,000 bottles with screw tops. In 2001, after seeing the initial success of the Australian producers, New Zealand began the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative to begin utilizing screwcaps in its wine bottling process. Thanks to this initiative, 70 percent of wine produced by the Kiwis was being topped off with a screwcap within a few short years. Nowadays, that number surpasses 90 percent, with 30 percent of the wine bottled worldwide being sealed with a screwcap.

As the consumption of New World wines rose in the early 2000s, many major New World wine producers hopped onto the screwcap movement. When this happened, the public perception of wine quality began trending upwards for those bottles topped with screwcaps instead of the traditional cork. This positive shift also led to continued development of screwcap technology, such as screwcaps that allow oxygen to permeate the seal and age the wine similar to cork.

 

Quick summary

Cork

Pros:

  • Allows fuller wines, especially reds, to “breathe” during aging which helps smooth out the tannins and develops the wine’s complexity
  • That traditional “pop” is just oh so satisfying

Cons:

  • Cork taint!
  • Every cork is different so there can be inconsistencies, even if they’re made from the same tree
  • Corked bottles can be difficult to open, causing pieces to fall into the wine

 

Screwcap

Pros:

  • Much more consistent, allowing for much greater control over the oxygenation of wine
  • Easy to open and close

Cons:

  • During bottling, screwcaps can be applied to bottles incorrectly causing premature oxidation
  • Public perception still largely associates screwcaps with ‘cheap’ wine

 

We know the debate is enough to make you blow your top. So the next time you find yourself listening to a lengthy lecture about how wine should be sealed: take a step back, snap or crack open your favorite bottle of vino and breathe easy. Because no matter how it’s capped, we still get the same outcome. Wine.

Sources: Wine Intro (article 1), Wine Intro (article 2), Wikipedia, Wine Spectator (article 1), Wine Anorak, VinePair (article1), Wine Spectator (article 2), VinePair (article 2), NPR, The Wine Cellar Insider

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Bright Cellars

Our staff is full of winos with a passion for vino. With our amazing wine director at the helm, we’ve been schooled on all things wine. We came together to write this article, in hopes of spreading a little wine-ducation with you.

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