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Cork Versus Screw Cap: Don't Judge A Wine By How It's Sealed

Jan 2, 2014
Originally published on January 2, 2014 5:18 pm

Step aside, cork.

If you're a wine drinker, you've probably noticed that screw caps are no longer considered the closure just for cheap vino. Increasingly, bottles of very good wines are unscrewed, rather than uncorked.

Screw caps for wine bottles have been around since the late 1950s, but they were initially associated with value-oriented jugs of wine. That image started to change about a decade ago, when commercial winemakers in New Zealand and Australia started using the enclosures much more widely for all kinds of wine, including some higher-end bottles.

And according to screw cap enthusiasts, the science establishing the ability of screw caps to seal and perform well goes back to the 1980s.

So, what's the rule of thumb when it comes to winemakers choosing screw caps in lieu of corks?

Increasingly, winemakers "prefer screw caps for white wines and reds meant to be drunk young," says Dave McIntyre, a wine writer whose columns appear in The Washington Post.

Take, for instance, the wines from Cupcake Vineyards in Livermore, Calif. James Foster, the senior winemaker at Cupcake, says he loves screw caps for his sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.

"The screw cap keeps it [the bottle] sealed and does not allow oxygen to enter the bottle," Foster says. And that, he explains, ensures that the wine remains crisp and well-preserved.

On the other hand, he opts for cork or synthetic cork for his more complex wines such as his chardonnay and his reds, including his cabernets and his Red Velvet, a blend of zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

"Bigger, fuller wines benefit from a little oxygen that the cork naturally allows the wine to intake while it's in the bottle," says Foster. The tiny bit of air inside the bottle, Foster says, helps smooth out the tannins, which give reds their velvety mouth feel but can also create a harsher taste. The extra air oxidizes the tannins so they're softer, making the wine "even more drinkable and approachable to our consumers," he says.

And the other plus of screw caps? They're easy to open. No fiddling with a church key (or corkscrew). And no broken cork bits accidentally floating in your wine.

By unscrewing, "we get to the wine 10 seconds faster," jokes McIntyre.

Even so, resistance to screw caps remains, especially in the high-end wine world. Some winemakers in the U.S. "feel the jury is still out on aging wines under screw cap," says McIntyre.

Another point of resistance: The screw cap upends the ritual of uncorking.

Lucas Paya, the wine director for renowned chef Jose Andre's Think Food Group, finds great pleasure in the tableside presentation of his wines.

"It's part of the ceremony," Paya says as he reaches for the church key that he keeps strapped to his belt to uncork a bottle of red wine.

But as we know, the only thing in life that's constant ... is change. And as the cork seal gives way to the screw cap, "people are getting used to it," Paya says, even if some people perceive unscrewing as a bit less elegant than uncorking.

As a sommelier, Paya says that when he's opening a bottle of wine that's enclosed with a screw cap in front a table of guests, he focuses their attention on other elements of the bottle, such as the label.

And, of course, what ultimately matters is the taste.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

If you opened a bottle of wine over the holidays, you may have noticed something. Increasingly, wine is being sealed with screw caps instead of corks. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, some winemakers like screw caps because they seal in freshness and they're convenient. But don't put a cap on the cork just yet.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There's a ritual to opening a bottle of wine. Just ask sommelier Lucas Paya.

LUCAS PAYA: So we're going to - I'm going to present you this wine bottle of wine. And this is the Pares Balta Mas Petit from Penedes.

AUBREY: Paya oversees the wine list of a dozen restaurants in the D.C. area, including here at Jaleo. Tonight, as he turns the label towards his guests, he moves in close to the table for a bit of show and tell.

PAYA: They want to see the label or they want to just, you know, touch the bottle.

AUBREY: As he describes the wine...

CORNISH: 84 percent cabernet and then the remaining is garnatxa, grenache.

AUBREY: He pulls off the corkscrew from the holster on his belt and gracefully slices away the foil that covers the cork...

PAYA: Now, we're going to open it.

AUBREY: ...which means we're about to get that...

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING)

AUBREY: Ah, that sound.

PAYA: That's the sound. That's what we want.

(LAUGHTER)

PAYA: That you don't get with screw caps.

AUBREY: For Paya, who's a traditionalist, cork is still very much part of the wine world. He says despite the fast-rising popularity of screw cap tops, he does not see cork disappearing.

PAYA: When it comes to the higher-end wines, cork is still kind of a must-have.

AUBREY: But increasingly, the screw cap has begun appearing on some pretty good wines. And winemakers say there's a reason. James Foster, the head winemaker at Cupcake Vineyards in California, says choosing screw caps over a cork comes down to science. He explains, for many of his white wines, a cork is not ideal because it can let in a little bit of air, which can change the taste. The screw cap, on the other hand...

JAMES FOSTER: It keeps it sealed and does not allow oxygen to enter into the bottle.

AUBREY: Now, Foster has not given up on cork. He uses it for some of his red wines.

FOSTER: Bigger, fuller malt-filled wines, for example, Red Velvets and cabernet, benefit from a little oxygen that the cork naturally allows the wine to intake while in the bottle.

AUBREY: This is important in aging. And Foster says, in his red wines, the little bit of oxygen can help improve the taste.

FOSTER: It allows the wine to become even more drinkable and approachable to our consumers.

AUBREY: Now, since the vast majority of wine produced today is not intended to be cellared and aged but rather consumed and enjoyed immediately, Foster says the screw cap has a lot going for it. It preserves the taste the winemaker created. And for us, the consumer, the screw cap offers simplicity.

FOSTER: That's easy to open and it's convenient.

AUBREY: Sommelier Lucas Paya says, yeah, he absolutely agrees with the convenience factor. Anyone can get a screw top open.

PAYA: Opening a screw cap bottle is so easy, it's idiot-proof, right?

AUBREY: Idiot-proof.

PAYA: It is idiot-proof.

AUBREY: Paya says he hopes he doesn't see the day that the uncorking ritual disappears. But he says it is the taste that truly matters. So with an open mind, he unscrews a bottle that's enclosed with a screw cap.

PAYA: Let's taste it.

AUBREY: He gets two glasses and pours.

PAYA: This is like almost chocolatey and very red fruity. Oh, I really like it.

AUBREY: So just as we're told not to judge a book by its cover, even sommeliers say don't judge a wine simply by how it's sealed. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.