Wine: Screw It, Caps are Just as Effective as Corks

SCREW IT: Screw caps are more convenient than corks — and just as effective — but they’re still no guarantee against cork taint.


Which is better: screw cap or cork?

As William Shakespeare might have asked: Whether ’tis nobler in the bottle to suffer the outrages of cork taint or to take screw caps against a sea of troubles?

I recently stuck my nose into a sea of trouble, a glass of white wine infected by cork taint, a chemical problem that occurs randomly in a small number of wines (in reds more than whites). The only problem was that the bottle had a screw cap, not a cork.

Was I crazy? Is that possible? Actually, yes.

When the screw cap began being more widely promoted for use on fine wine bottles a decade or so ago, its proponents claimed that it would eliminate cork taint, shorthand for a chemical byproduct in wine called trichloroanisole (TCA).

Depending on whom you ask, TCA occurs in from 1 to 5 percent of wine bottles. It’s an odor and taste that overpowers wine and can come from several sources — not simply from cork, as was widely assumed for many years.

TCA can begin in the winery, in hoses, in barrels, or in other winemaking equipment that has not been properly cleaned. It also can originate from chemicals, such as insecticides, used on grapes in the vineyard, and it can be found in vines and grape stems.

One of the mysteries of how TCA awakens and spreads is that we know you can buy a case of wine and find 11 perfectly drinkable bottles and a 12th with rampant TCA, which also suggests that corks remain a primary source of the problem.

In the case of my glass of white wine, it clearly wasn’t a cork problem, so it was probably infected in the winery and evolved after being bottled. When we pulled a second bottle from the same case and tasted it, it was fine.

Personally, I prefer screw caps. I like the convenience. They seem to make a far better seal, and it’s pretty clear that you get far less TCA taint in screw-cap wines.
Still, purists and traditionalists look down their noses at screw caps and say that you just can’t replace the romance of pulling a cork.

The most cogent argument in favor of corks in reds, one on which the jury is still out, is that they’re better for aging and preservation. Maybe, but we just don’t yet know, since screw caps on wine haven’t yet been around that long.

We do know that 40-year-old fine bordeaux, burgundy, and California reds have fared well with corks. But many are also tainted.

So far, reds under screw caps seem to be doing very well. For example, I have a case of a screw-capped fine red wine that came out of Australia almost a decade ago, a 2002 Pirramimma Old Vines Grenache.

We recently opened a couple of bottles and they certainly seem to be brighter and fresher than a lot of other wines under cork of the same age. Coincidence? Perhaps. There can be so many variations in wine that it’s hard to say how these wines will be after 40 years.

Meanwhile, I don’t find any reason, after almost a decade under a screw cap, that my 2002 Pirramimma Grenache hasn’t — or won’t — do as well or better as it would with a cork.

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