The Cork vs. Cap Conundrum

If you are enjoying a glass of wine, will you enjoy it less if you find out that it was capped and not corked? The cork vs. screw cap debate has been raging in the wide world of wine for quite some time now and there’s still no consensus on which is best. Traditionalists will argue that cork is best for wines that need to be aged for a while before drinking while others will say that because cork is a natural product it is susceptible to the elements and can ruin some wines.

Besides the science offered by those on each side of the question, there is another aspect to the cork vs. cap debate that is considered by some to be more important than the science of oxidation and reduction. To them its all about the “aura” of it all. Cork’ers will tell you that pulling a cork from a bottle of wine is an ethereal experience that is inseparable from every other ritual that goes along with finally getting your glass to your lips. There’s probably room on both sides of the debate for both corks and caps to flourish and if you take a quick look at the wine racks at your local wine merchant you will see that both are well-represented. So, perhaps the answer to the conundrum lies in how, when and where each is used rather than one versus the other. You wouldn’t use Mr. Coffee to make espresso and you wouldn’t use an espresso pot to make a cup of coffee so perhaps the same applies to which stopper to use to bottle which wine. Use the one that works best for the application.

If you haven’t already cemented yourself into one corner or the other on this issue you’ll probably be receptive to further discussion and analysis as to which type of wine(s) go best with which method of bottling. If you are fully immersed in the demagoguery of the corks’ers and cap’ers well, there’s probably no changing your mind, but here goes.


The Problem with Corks

Corks have not always been used to seal a bottle of wine but without going into ancient history suffice it to say that it became apparent a long time ago that wine bottled in glass containers and sealed with a good cork, will continue to age and become a much better wine over time. This being especially, or exclusively true for red wines more than most white wines. Therefore the practice of using corks became the only practice for many years. Fast forward a few years and wine makers and wine aficionados could not overlook the reality that many bottles of fine red wine were also being ruined during this aging process and the culprit for the problem seemed to be a bad cork.

You have to keep in mind that cork is a natural product; the bark of the cork tree or the quercus suber. This particular tree only grows well in certain parts of the Western Mediterranean with Portugal being the primary location for most of the natural cork harvested in the world. In addition to the unique climate and conditions required to grow cork in a relatively small area of the planet, it also takes more than 25 years for a tree to mature into a “cork supplier.” In addition, the quality control issues with cork production, though vastly improved over the last 25 years, is still a source of potential problems for wine makers. Corkiness or cork taint is a condition that can take a first growth French Bordeaux and turn it into skunky, mold juice and given the price of a bottle of vintage Bordeaux wine you can’t fault wine makers for considering alternative capping methods for their beloved vino. Cork taint comes from a fungi called TCA or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, and TBA or 2,4,6 tribromoanisole. These fungi can make there way through the pores of a natural cork and into the wine. When they do, you’ll know it soon enough. The wine will smell moldy and will be virtually undrinkable.

On the other hand, natural corks are irreplaceable, at least for now, for wines that require or are best when aged for a long time in the bottle. The natural cork allows the flow of oxygen into a bottled wine and in doing so ever so slowly over time, the wine will develop additional flavor profiles that would otherwise never have a chance to come about with a “synthetic” cap.

If you’re a wine maker, you are probably best served by buying quality corks from a hobby shop that caters to wine and spirits makers. A good source to check for corks is The Home Brewery. They have a wide selection of natural and synthetic corks for you to choose from depending on the length of time that you expect to age your wine.

The Problem With Caps

As noted above, there’s just something plastic about plastic especially when it’s being used to cap a bottle of wine. Yes, caps do have a PR problem but their tainted image has a long and well-established history that is hard to deny, and for some, to get over. There was a time when corks were used for wine and caps were used for Ripple, Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. Not that there’s anything wrong with those products if that’s your “brown bag.” But its hard to deny the negative vibes that used to come from the sound of a twist off top being twisted off the top of one of these iconic Bowery beverages.

Aside from the ethereal, the science of the plastic twist off top is not 100% either. It’s not like cork has issues and synthetics are a winemakers panacea. Plastic screw tops and synthetic corks allow no oxygen into a wine, which for some wines is fine but it can cause a problem known as reduction, which comes from the extreme lack of oxygen in a bottle of wine. The result can be a bottle of wine that smells like burnt rubber or rotten eggs. However the science behind making synthetic caps has improved greatly and the problem with “rotten egg” wine is rare to say the least.

The packaging company Amcor distributes the best screw cap on the market, Stelvin. It is the original wine screw cap, developed over 40 years it uses specific liners specially designed for the aging process of wine.

The Answer

Well, we might have to wait until 2013 for the scientific answer, when a group from UC Davis present the results of a test that they are conducting on 600 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. Cork sniffers already have their answer so nothing in these findings will likely sway them away from the spiritual experience that begins their wine tasting. However, for those willing to listen the results of the UC study will be interesting. Between now and then suffice it to say that different wines probably require different methods of bottling and corking while others will fair quite well with a cork substitute. Wines that require aging and time in the bottle to reach perfection need a quality cork. Wines that are headed for a glass shortly after they are bottled will do just fine with a screw cap, or a synthetic cork.