Frank’s Tip – Between a cork and a hard place…

Between a cork and a hard place…

As a winemaker, I have used both and will continue to do so for a very long time. If confronted with the following dilemma: “you can only use one, what will it be?” It will be a cork (of sorts).  The debate will rage on. There are pros and cons. Here are a few elements for a more balanced view of the world of wine closures.

First a bit of background. Cork is a unique piece of material; it has an amazing ability to expand back to its exact size after having been contracted; scientist have spend years studying cork’s cell structure to see how it manages this feat; as it would solve the problem of rubber and plastics elasticity. But I digress.

Cork is a pretty smart solution to close a bottle, BUT it still is a natural product with all its “quirks”.

  1. cork is not 100% uniform, they vary from one to the next
  2. its amazing cell structure is also the reason why no treatment can assure 100% cleanliness past a few millimeters in depth
  3. It can leak
  4. it can give off a nasty moldy character called cork taint (incidentally TCA and its derivatives can come from sources other than cork – so you can have a corked bottle under screwcap!)
  5. it can allow in too much oxygen which lead to oxidation and big bottle variations.
  6. It crumbles and breaks once old or stored in too low humidity conditions

So why use it then? Well, when cork is good it is brilliant, if applied correctly and stored properly it will serve its purpose for decades, no issues. As much as technology is amazing, nothing has managed to replicate corks expanding capacity up to date (cork is still used on space shuttle components for this reason).

So is it worth the Russian roulette? In my humble opinion…. I don’t know. Yes, I have a slight sense of angst when opening a really nice bottle under cork, hoping it would be in pristine condition.

Screwcaps take this particular risk out of the equation but it adds a few factors that are not always wanted. The actual winemaking needs to change ever-so-slightly when opting for screwcaps. The whole process becomes more “scientific” as dissolved gasses, both oxygen and carbon dioxide, play a major role under a hermetic seal (we won’t discuss variable permeability seals…. Yawn).

But above all else, general consumers still see screwcap as a “cheap wines” closure; I know I am not speaking to general consumers now…. But that is the sad reality.

Looking forward, cork is here to stay. The technology is getting better year on year in selecting and treating it to restrict faults. Screwcaps are also here to stay. They are a great closure not just for white and early drinking wines, but for all wines. So don’t choose cork just because you think it looks fancier, a toupet also looks fancy until the wind blows it off your head…

Alternatives? There are a few: vinolock a very fancy glass stopper that looks and work great, but costs a fortune and restricted to a handful of bottles. And of course, composite corks (my weapon of choice), technically a deconstructed natural cork, treated to ensure all TCA is removed and reconstructed.  Plastics……. If EVER I see someone buying a bottle of wine closed with a plastics closure I want to fly into a fit of rage. Worst of all worlds. DON’T DO IT.

Happy experimenting.

Frank the T&B