Screw Cap vs. Cork: And the Verdict is…?

Phillip and I attended a great seminar at Tablas Creek Vineyard this past Saturday where we tasted side-by-side wines that were enclosed with either a cork or a screw cap. We have seen the screw cap (or stelvin) enclosure become more prevalent over the years, some countries and wineries moving exclusively to use screw cap (New Zealand & Bonny Doon Winery where Randall Grahm went to the extent of performing a “death to the cork” procession). It is a common debate as to which is best, some enjoy the romance of popping a cork, and others appreciate the simplicity of merely twisting off the top. (Phillip and I were in a beautiful B & B in Hunter Valley, Australia during an incredible lightening storm when we enjoyed our first screw cap wine. We had been running back and forth between the car and our room–dodging lightening bolts whilst running through the pouring rain, gathering suitcases and other miscellaneous paraphernalia–and we relished in the fact that all we had to do between running was give that cap a twist! No fumbling through our bags, dripping with rain, to find a corkscrew.) AmByth uses corks only, but it is an interesting dilemma: cork is considered to be the most common factor that creates a wine that is tainted (referred to as “corked”). A tainted wine usually is characterized by having a nose of moldy newspaper, wet dog, dampness, etc. A corked wine strips the wine of its fruit, both on the nose and in the overall flavor. It isn’t bad for human consumption–it just isn’t good for the wine. And it can throw a potential repeat consumer straight off the trail. You get a corked bottle of wine, it can change your opinion and satisfaction with that wine/winery-perhaps discouraging you from ever buying again. Industry averages for corked wine is 3 – 10% of yearly bottlings…this is scary! And this number isn’t going down (despite all of the arguments from cork producers).

Tablas Creek is the Paso Robles partnership of Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas. They are a very serious winery and conduct many in-house discussions and experiments before jumping into something “with both feet”. Enclosing wine with a screw cap instead of a cork is one of those issues they have been experimenting with since 2002, tasting the same wines over the years and implementing changes as necessary. The seminar consisted of 6 wines: 2 whites, 1 rose, and 3 reds. We were given 2 glasses per wine, one glass held the wine under cork, and the other held the same wine that was enclosed with a screw cap. The wines served per tasting were the same: harvested at the same time, aged equally, bottled at the same time, same vintage, etc.

The general consensus per wine was very interesting, but here are a few observations:

  • Regarding red wine, the room clearly and overwhelmingly preferred the wine under cork versus the same wine under screw cap. As mentioned above, we were served 3 different red wines (2002 Glenrose, 2005 Cotes de Tablas, & 2006 Cotes de Tablas) and the results were always in favor of cork.
  • Regarding white wine, the room was split down the middle. We preferred the 2003 Vermintino under cork, yet the 2004 Bergeron under screw cap was lovely. However, the 2003 Rose had a 50/50 vote regarding cork or screw cap.
  • Wines finished with a cork seem to have a sweetness on the palate that is not present in wine under screw cap. You also have a bit more oxidation on the nose-perhaps “flattening” the nose a bit–the wines under screw cap all had lovely, fresh noses compared to its counterpart under cork. Also, wines enclosed with cork do have the slightest oak flavor, imparted of course from the cork (from a certain varietal of oak tree, the Quercus suber!).
  • Wines under screw cap tend to exhibit brighter, fresher fruit qualities. However, the question remains how well a wine will age under screw cap…this is virtually unknown at this time as the mechanics for testing age quality are not yet in place. Also with screw cap, you have the problem of reduction (opposite of oxidation) in wine–so you want to seriously consider what grape varietals to put under screw cap.
  • And there is a bottom-line stigma with wines under screw cap: they are perceived to be “cheap”, whereas, the wine under cork is believed to be “expensive”–and this is a hard one to get away from.
  • As a winery, you have to consider and factor in your guess as the when your consumer is going to drink a wine: is this a young-drink-now type of wine (white wines, roses, etc) or is this wine age-worthy? A wine that you expect to evolve and change over time is best under cork, and a wine that is exhibiting great fresh characteristics now performs well under screw cap.

And some final advice: if you have wine under screw cap in your cellar, make sure they are standing upright. The sediment will move toward the top of the bottle, and collect there under the screw cap and this will give you quite a shock when you open your bottle. There is no reason for the bottles to be stored in their side, to have contact with the enclosure (versus contact with a cork)–so get those bottles standing straight up!

(The wines: **when referred to as “corked” it merely means the wine was enclosed with cork instead of screw cap–it does not refer to a “corked” wine in a sense of a tainted wine.**)

**Photo at Top: one of our bees enjoying our wild flower garden–it is a lovely sight to see them so busy at AmByth! If you double-click on the photo, you can see the pollen collected on the back legs of the bee, amazing! More to come on the bees…)