Bringing closure? A screwcap-cork showdown

Five years ago, Randall Grahm staged a funeral for the cork. The great marketer and label designer behind Big House Red and Ca del Solo among other brands staged a processional for his last cork at Grand Central Station of all places. From then on, all of his wines have been bottled “en screw.”

Since enjoying wine is in many ways a race against time (and oxygen), how a bottle of wine gets sealed is of utmost importance. Corks have their detractors since they can introduce the noxious chemical TCA that makes wines “corked.” Further, the pieces of tree bark can lose their elasticity as they age letting in wine’s nemesis, oxygen.

Screwcaps, by contrast, can provide such a tight seal that no oxygen gets in and there is no problem with TCA. Many proponents of screwcaps (or Stelvin closures, if you must) might suggest that the only thing standing between them and domination of the wine world is consumer resistance since wines bottled “en screw” have typically been seen as more downmarket. And what would you do with your $100 corkscrew if you only had to twist the cap off?

Screwcaps appear to be so controversial with their partisans for and against, you might think it impossible to find a producer who goes both ways. Fortunately the Wine Media Guild was able to find several examples of the same wines bottled under both closures for the March tasting.

Michel Laroche attended the tasting as speaker to share his experiences as well as several of his wines bottled under both closures. Laroche is a fifth generation winemaker from Chablis who has run his family firm since 1967 and now also makes wine in the Languedoc, Chile and South Africa.

For Laroche the transition to screwcaps started in 2001 when an unacceptably large amount of his wine was sold unknowingly with TCA that came through corks. Placing the estimate at 10 percent of his production that year, he expressed frustration because he said that consumers never complained so he didn’t know if they thought that flawed wine was actually his style.

So in 2002 he took action. He set up an alternative bottling line and bottled three percent of his production under screwcaps. He bottled the same day and from the same vats. He brought four of his wines that run the gamut of his line for us to taste, with a bottle under each closure.

The difference was shocking. With screwcap, the 2002 Chablis St. Martin (about $25; find this wine) was still a youthful, flinty Chablis without a whole lot of intrigue but solid and fresh. The cork closure for the same wine, by contrast, was older tasting with more signs of oxidation. Everyone save one person at the tasting preferred the screwcap.

Moving up to the Chablis premier cru les Vaudevay (about $33; find this wine), the screwcap bottling was lovely, fresh with lively citrus zest and minerality while the cork was much more advanced in its maturation. Not past it, but not nearly as much fun. The screwcap was the group favorite by a wide margin.

With the higher-end cuvees, the group found more parity, if not a slight preference of cork. For the Chablis Grand Cru les Blanchots (about $60; find this wine) I preferred the screwcap bottling since it had more intrigue than the cork, which I found softer. The Chablis Grand Cru les Clos (about $75; find this wine), an elegant wine, showed well under both closures but the softness of the cork bottling was more appealing to me in this one as it added more layers of complexity.

Interestingly, for these older wines, Laroche said that 30 – 50 times more oxygen can pass into the wine with cork than one with screwcap. So for young wines, meant to be drunk quickly the main advantage is reducing the chances of TCA. But for older wines, the cork shrinks and more oxygen can pass through, altering the wine sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

“What I don’t want is variation,” Laroche said. When he opens a case of 15 year old wines for a party, one bottle will invariably be corked while the other eleven bottles will be in entirely different stages of evolution. His breakthrough moment came in drinking a 1980 Australian Riesling that still tasted fresh about 20 years after bottling.

Laroche has learned more about how to use the technology. He has played with the joints and closures. And his more age-worthy wines now spend longer in the winery aging before bottling since once in the bottle, they do not age.

We had several other wines there as well with both closures. There was a Jean-Claude Boisset Bourgogne chardonnay 2005 (find this wine) that has so much oak that the type of closure was not distinguishable to me. The Boisset Bourgogne pinot noir 2005 (find this wine) oddly tasted more Burgundian to me under screwcap. I preferred the Domaine Chandon Prestige Etoile Brut MV (find this wine) slightly better under the beer bottle top known as a crown cap.

What’s the future of screwcaps for Laroche? In 2002 he had just three percent bottled under screwcap. By vintage 2003, he had 33 percent. And by vintage 2005, he had more than 60 percent including all the wine going to Canada, Japan, and the UK. If you like this trend, ask for screwcaps since Laroche says he’s just following “the result of market demand.”

(image #1; image #2 Dr. Vino)

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16 Responses to “Bringing closure? A screwcap-cork showdown”

  1. The only trouble I find is that there seems to be a perception in some quarters that screw tops will make a wine better somehow. Screw tops will remove the possibility of the closure tainting the wine with TCA (which is great). There still remains the possibility that the wine has been tainted in production although this is very rare.
    What a screw top won’t do is turn a low quality wine producer into a great one. Consumers need to separate the marketing from the actual advantages that screw tops offer.
    I think Laroche’s approach is a healthy way to deal with what can be a difficult issue for wine producers. Their scale does give them this option, which would be more difficult for a small boutique producer to implement.

  2. […] Bringing closure? A screwcap-cork showdown [] […]

  3. […] comes news of another taste test (presumably blind), this time comparing wines bottled with screwcaps and those with cork. Since […]

  4. […] 27 Mar 2007 Chateau Scroutop FTW Posted by asocialstudies under Uncategorized […]

  5. Why not just use a plastic cork? We just enjoyed a marvelous bottle of Layer Cake Shiraz that was a screw cap. Although it was a truly deep and delicate wine, I still couldn’t get over the opening process. I felt as if I was opening a bottle of soda. A $20 bottle of soda. I would assume that the plastic cork that many are using these days solves both problems, preserving the wine and keeping with traditional opening methods (as silly as that sounds).

  6. Paul,

    True, a screw cap closure could still have TCA if the winery itself were tainted…The scale at Laroche does give him the ability to do both bottlings. It was difficult to find the same wine bottled two different ways!

    On that note, a wine geek friend of mine was telling me that in his experience some screwcap wines have to be given a moment after opening for the sulfites to blow off since they would normally diminish gradually with the cork closure.

  7. Mike –

    I personally am not a fan of the plastic corks (or corq as one company calls it). They have SO much elasticity that the grip firmly on to the corkscrew and can be hard to remove!

    There may be some period of acclimatization to screwcaps. But with so many more wineries bottling en screw, it’s no doubt something we’ll be seeing more of for even finer wines. Btw, this posting got picked up on Consumerist and a wide rage of comments have been posted over there, mostly in favor of screwcaps…

  8. […] screwcap posting from a couple of days ago generated an interesting discussion on The Consumerist about the pros and […]

  9. The one thing the consumer needs to come back too, is the wines quality, not all the gimmickry and marketing. The closure is irrelevant as is the color of the label. If you start with a poor quality and faulty wine a screw top is not going to improve it. A lot of the debate seems to be from the stand point that all wines are good before they are bottled. It’s a nice idea but it’s not correct. If a wine smells and tastes terrible you should take it back regardless of how they closed the bottle. I want to see good quality, interesting wines, I don’t really care how they are closed.

    On the subject of reduction. This is a really tricky issue thats not necsercerily connected to the screw tops but can be exacerbated by the reduced oxygen transfer rate, although new waddings are seeking to improve this. Also wine makers need to make slight adjustments in their procedures when changing from cork to screw top as the wine will mature in a different environment. Cork closed wine can suffer the same problem but at very low levels of reduction it is very hard to detect and only mutes the aromas.

    The bottom line is that if the wine is rubbish, take it back and demand a refund. It helps lend weight to your argument if you don’t drink the whole bottle!

  10. My concern about corks is that the TCA compound is often present in subliminal levels, so that the consumer is not aware that the wine is “corked” but finds the wine lacking in freshness, fruit and, otherwise, unpleasant, or not up to expectations.
    I would use screw caps in a second, because I only make white wines that I want fresh. Also I produce a variety that few people in the US know about (Ribolla Gialla) and I do not want TCA to make a poor impression for this new wine or me being a new producer.
    Unfortunately for me, I only use 500 ML and 1.5 L bottle sizes where the selection of bottles for screw tops is extremely limited. As a result I use the synthetic Nomacork (my tests indicate it is the best coming out of the bottle) with good results so far.

  11. I think wine should have a real cork. I think people like the tradition. Part of enjoying the wine is opening the bottle.
    I do think screwcaps should stay on beer bottles.

  12. I can understand why people might want to hold on to the ‘traditions’ of cork, but I cannot understand how consumers can live with the variability that is inherent with the closure, in addition to potential TCA effects . . . Just don’t get it. Oh well . . .

  13. Hi,
    This is a very complex and interestng topic – both for the consumer and the producer of wine. (I am both!)
    For me, the technical aspects of the type of closure (cork, plastic or screwtop) are not that important to me. Number one is the quality of the wine. Number two is the presentation / experience / cultural dimension of drinking a bottle of wine. ie if you just want to get blotto then ‘cheap and convenient’ is the way to go for you. But if you like to appreciate wine with good food or as an apperitivo or just drinking and enjoying it for its own sake, then a proper cork is obvoiusly part of the routine.
    I’ve read widely conflicting data on the % of cork taint in the wine industry, and the only thing I can rely on is my own experience: I’m 45 years old, have been drinking wine for 20 years (as a discriminating wine-loving adult) and since I was about 7 casually at the table. And the number of corked wines that I’ve experienced in that time I can count on the fingers of one hand!
    I think the whole closure debate is really about economics and profitability, because they are so CHEAP compared to the price of a natural cork. All the technical debate is really froth and marketing.
    The world of wine is immense and wide-ranging and all types of people drink diffent types of wine on different occasions and circumstances. I think that screwtops will be associated with cheap and nasty wine while natural corks will be used for quality wines. Plastic tops are somewhere inbetween as usually you cant see the cork when you buy a bottle of wine as its covered by the capsule. Personally, I am always disappointed when I uncover a plastic cork and will try to remember not to buy that wine again.
    I always use natural corks for the wines that I produce even if they are more expensive for me.
    This debate has been going on for years, and it’s really started to bore me, … perhaps I’m just getting cynical in my old age! … but I really believe it’s just a cost issue for wineries, and all the technical blah blah blah is just a justification for a nice cost-cutting excercise.

  14. I have worked in the wine industry for more than 35 years and in particular the bottling & bottling technology side. Throughout the years we have seen table wines evolve from pre-threaded screw caps to natural corks to ROPP closures (“Roll On Pilfer Proof” such as Stelcap & Stelvin) and synthetic corks. Most of the evolutionary changes are in reaction to requests from wine producers to obtain a consistant seal on the bottles to reduce and/or eliminate oxygen permiation into the wine after bottling. Most of the design testing and product testing is performed scientifically with documentation to indicate the results for or against a particular closure. Typically wines are tested, and tasted, at various stages of production including the vat, in the bottle after filling/before sealing, after sealing and at regular intervals throughout the life expectancy of the wine. This establishes a “baseline” for the wine as it was produced and through each phase of the bottling/aging process and a an understanding of what the chemical/characteristic changes are over time. People that understand the science of winemaking acknowledge that all things being equal prior to the bottling process in regards to dissolved oxygen, oxygenation durring filling, and oxygen headspace in the bottle after filling, that oxygen permiation through the seal will be the deteriorating factor in bottled wines. Oxygenating wines more quickly will ultimately shorten the “shelflife” of the wine. If you produce fresh fruity wines that are drinkable at the time of bottling then you want very little to no oxygen permiation through the seal. If however you want to “bottle age” (some people suggest that this is an oxymoron) your wines and produce them with this in mind, then you should obviously allow for the results of oxygen permiation. In the end the style of wine making will influence your decision on which closure type works best for your products. Unfortunately cork taint is a factor that we can not predict nor in most cases, control.

  15. I’m amazed at how many people are still resistant to this wonderful upgrade in technology. Should we really give precedence to the act of uncorking a bottle over that of preserving the wine inside the bottle?

    Larry Schaffer summed up this trade-off well:

    “I can understand why people might want to hold on to the ‘traditions’ of cork, but I cannot understand how consumers can live with the variability that is inherent with the closure.”

    One day practicality and finance will succeed in dictating the use of alternate closures; and who knows, maybe the romance formerly ascribed to the extracting of a cork will someday be redirected to the twisting off of a cap.

    Paul Kalemkiarian
    President, Wine of the Month Club

  16. Tyler,

    It’s interesting to hear people talk about not wanting any type of differences when it comes to closures. Personally, I think those small differences are what helps to sell wine. Do we really want to turn into the beer industry where vintage doesn’t matter and there is no sense of romanticism?


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