The best wines come with corks. Or do they? Evidence is mounting that twist-off caps can be just as good for wines. But are they good for the environment? The pros and cons continue to be debated among experts, winemakers and the wine-loving public.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATOR: Anthony Casto
Wine and corks have a history together that has existed for centuries.
A first-century amphora that not only had a cork but also still contained wine was found in Ephesus. Fifth-century Greeks and Romans used corks to close wine jars. Corks are mentioned in Shakespeare’s 16th-century “As You Like It,” when the character Rosalind says impatiently, “I pray thee take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.” And no one should forget the indomitable Dom Perignon, who chose the bark of the cork oak in the 17th century to seal his champagne.
For generations of oenophiles, cork has been the only acceptable closure on a bottle of wine. Twist-off caps? Relegated to cheap jug wines, until South Africa, Australia and New Zealand introduced them on premium wines a decade or so ago. According to Wine Enthusiast magazine, 10 percent of American wines now have screw tops and the numbers are growing even among high-end wineries.
Although many wine drinkers view the ease of opening a wine bottle with a screw cap as a big advantage, it just doesn’t have the allure of popping the cork.
“It’s all about presentation,” says Joe Sabatini, partner of the wine-themed Palm Tree Grille in Mount Dora. “The whole presentation of uncorking the bottle is what people have come to expect with a nice bottle of wine. There is nothing wrong with a screw cap. In fact, it may be a better stopper because there is no chance of bacteria tainting the wine, but people perceive wines with screw caps to be inferior.”
Sabatini, who admits he also favors corks, agrees with the experts, however. Synthetic corks and screw caps could be better for wine some day.
“Technology makes it a different world,” he says. “People have to get over it if it makes for a better bottle of wine.”
His wine-savvy customers know a highly regarded Washington state riesling or an Australian shiraz may come with a screw-cap closure.
“If they know the wine,” says Sabatini, “they know what it’s going to be.”
Increasingly, winemakers prefer screw caps for white wines and reds that are meant to be consumed young, according to Dave McIntyre, a wine columnist for The Washington Post. Screw caps do not allow oxygen to enter the bottle, which ensures the wines will remain crisp and well-preserved. More complex wines, however, benefit from the “breathing” and healthy gas exchange, especially when cellared more than 18 months.
Finally, there is the argument that natural cork is more environmentally friendly and sustainable, key missions for most winemakers. There are thousands of acres of cork forests in Portugal’s Alentejo region — the world’s top producer of cork. It’s an environmentally rich area that harbors hundreds of species of plants, birds and animals, including the world’s rarest cat, the Iberian lynx. The cork oak trees live 200 to 300 years and are a remarkable and sustainable resource for cork. The bark that’s peeled away to make cork stoppers grows back and the process is repeated, as it has been since Roman times. For those of us who are “corkophiles,” Alentejo’s protected cork forests just add to the allure of wine bottles sealed with natural corks.
Although there is not 100 percent agreement among wine experts as to which closure is absolutely the best, it’s safe to say you should choose your wine on what’s inside the bottle, not how it is sealed. If you like the wine, that’s all that matters.