The question of “Is there really a difference to the quality of wine between cork and screw cap?” was posed to me today through Facebook, and in researching the answer I was thrown into the notion that the consumer has long dictated the progression of this innovative wine closure. The idea of ‘romance’ surrounding wine is seemingly as important to the consumer as is the quality of the wine itself. Is this right or wrong? Does the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine really influence our enjoyment of the product?
First, let’s look at the origins of the screwcap and why it has come into play
As early as the 1950’s France took charge with the screwcap seal for wine under the name ‘Stelcap-vin’ taking its inspiration from closures for spirits and even tomato sauce.
In 1970 Australian Consolidated Industries Pty Ltd purchased the rights to produce the screwcap under the Australian re-branding ‘Stelvin’. Testing occurred in the mid to late 70’s, noting that the liner and its contact with the neck of the bottle was crucial in creating an effective seal. It is claimed that commercial production was not achieved at this time due to fears of consumer acceptance and less acknowledgement of the scope of TCA contamination.
While Penfolds Bin 2 went on the UK market under screw cap in 1996 with a neck tag soliciting consumer feedback, it wasn’t until 2000 that the first clear push for the screwcap was seen. Clare Valley Riesling producers were frustrated with the inconsistency of cork, and most importantly, how it was negatively affecting their premium Rieslings. Cork taint was registered at between 2-5% of production (the same figures as now) representing a significant loss to smaller producers. As a collaborative effort, 250,000 specialised bottles and seals were imported from Pechiney, France. The instant eradication of cork-taint based losses and a greater consistency in the bottle ageing of their wine was the mark of success the screwcap needed.
Inspired by the success of the Clare Valley push, the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative was born in the early 2000’s. Now New Zealand wines are leading the pro-screwcap charge with approximately 90% of all NZ wines bottled under screwcap.
Worldwide acceptance of the screwcap is yet to be achieved, but most Australian and NZ wine producers and critics agree on 2 points promoting further use of the screwcap closure:
1: the absence of loss due to cork tainted or oxidised wines
2: more consistent reduction, the wine ages as the winemaker intends, across the board. The ageing process of the wine is more predictable, meaning less risk to both the winery and the consumer.
Randall Grahm sums this up beautifully ‘The primary role of the winemaker is to preserve the integrity of the wine and to allow the wine to achieve its greatest potential. For me, screwcaps are the very best technology currently in existence to advance this end.'
Australian wine writers Tyson Stelzer, Jancis Robinson and James Halliday are all very clear on the subject, a screwcap closure produces wines with the integrity and intentions of the winemaker intact. James Halliday noting ‘Looking back over the last decade of the NZSCWSI (and the similarly timed all-important move to screwcaps by the Riesling makers of the Clare Valley) my only regret is that the migration to screwcaps did not occur ten years earlier. Many of the wines in my cellar would be in far better condition had this occurred then'.
Research by the Australian Wine Research Institute has shown that the screwcap is the superior seal with the greatest level of consistency in oxygen ingress, no fear of TCA contamination and a guaranteed longevity of at least 10 years (although it must be noted that guarantees of longevity, as well as quality, vary from brand to brand of screwcap). While the uptake of the screwcap has been widely accepted in the white wine market, it is still a contentious issue when it comes to the ageing of our bigger reds. Some, such as Professors Emile Peynaud and Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, claim that the ageing process of wine is one of reduction, that take place in bottled wine despite the ingress of oxygen, not because of it. Others aren’t so sure the proof will be in the ageing, until more great reds under screwcap come of age there will continue to be sceptics.
There is a reason for cork, some winemakers commenting that you match the closure to the wine, a bigger, blockbuster Barossa Shiraz can handle, sometimes even (dare I say it) benefit from accelerated ageing of the wine, whereas a cooler climate Shiraz, lighter-bodied reds such as Grenache and whites are better suited to the screwcap. Consumers in Australia and New Zealand are slowly becoming comfortable of screwcap seals, but there is a long way to go in the 'old world' wine market, hundreds of years of tradition will be very hard to change.
It seems as though now, with more research verifying the stance that the Clare Valley Riesling makers took 13 years ago, the onus for the wine industry is on educating the consumer to the screwcap’s benefits.
As to the idea of ‘romance’:
Having spent many years in the restaurant game, this ceremonious opening of a cork-sealed bottle was part of my ‘act’. A flourish here, a quick twirl of the corkscrew there, that satisfying little ‘sigh’ and voila, your wine, Sir, is served. It was something special, the marking of an occasion. I also saw first-hand the disconcerted looks of customers to whom I presented a wine sealed under screwcap in the early to mid 2000’s. People were confused, often comparing a screwcapped bottle of wine to a bottle of soft-drink, considering it to be of lesser quality. The introduction of the synthetic cork during this same period appeased the restaurant consumer, but proved frustrating for the server, who quickly realised that their beautiful, Teflon coated cork-screw held the synthetic cork fast once it was out of the bottle (cue complete loss of ‘romance’ when your waitress struggles mightily to remove the darn thing!). I have to admit, I mourned the loss of the mystique of this ‘opening ceremony’, until I spoke with David, a Barossa winemaker, who very clearly spelled out the case for screwcap by saying ‘I want to be the one who decides how my wine will age, that shouldn’t be up to the cork’. It may not be as pretty, but the wine is the better for it.
Now ensconced in the wine industry I have been privy to many more reasons as to why screwcap is better, highlighted particularly well in a recent Riesling master-class. Run by and for Barossa cellar door staff we were shown Rieslings from around Australia and the world, but it quickly became apparent that the subtext of this ‘Riesling’ masterclass was one of ‘screwcap vs cork’. The stand out for this argument was a Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling from the late 1990’s, one sample under cork and one under screwcap (incidentally, the team encountered 2 ‘corked’ bottles while setting up for this event). The sample under cork was well past its best before date, whereas the screwcap version was still vibrant and most importantly, showing reductive characters, it was clearly an aged Riesling, but one under control.
At Turkey Flat, the decision to remove unnecessary faults was made in 2007 and all 750ml wines are now bottled successfully under screwcap. As a small producer, removing a large component from our wastage line has obviously proven to be financially beneficial, but the real benefit goes to the consumer. The wines from this period are still well and truly ‘alive’ with bright primary fruit, promising many more rewarding years of drinking to come.
My husband commented to me only recently “I don’t know, I prefer cork, it’s the romance of the wine that’s missing these days”. I say, let the romance be experienced in the enjoyment of the wine itself, rather than in its mere opening.
References available upon request