Screw it: Cork, Screw Caps and other Closures

6 03 2010
Screwcap grouping 1

Screw caps © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

I am just going to come out and say it. I HATE corks. I know this is sacrilegious in some circles, but I can’t stop myself. Please read on for the next few minutes while I explain with some facts and opinions around my passion for this topic.

There is a certain appeal (and ritual) to using a corkscrew to remove a cork, I get that, believe me I do. It’s as natural as breathing.  I also think there is a bit of “sexiness” to it.

I have dozens of corkscrews from the simple waiter style (my favorite) to complex gas injected numbers, and I love them. But there is nothing sexy about buying a wine that you intend to have that night or had previously purchased to keep for mid to long-term – only to uncork it (you sexy beast) to find that it is either “corked”, the wine has spoiled from oxidation, or has another fault called “Brett” short for Brettanomyces. There is nothing sexy about any of these. Today we will focus on the issue of the corked wine.

Corks are a natural material made from cork trees – that live and breathe. When atop a bottle, they retain the moisture from the wine (and humidity) and hold it inside its pores which helps keep it from drying out. This allows the cork to expand in the bottle and creates a seal around it to help ensure that the wine will not oxidize (but you have to lay the bottle on its side for this to work). Ok, clear on that.

What is a corked wine and how will you know?

You may have had a wine that smelled like wet newspapers, damp cardboard, wet dog, moldy basement, or even a swimming pool. Imagine that old sock that fell behind the washing machine in the damp basement and never made it to the dryer. This problem can range from mildly problematic to completely undrinkable. Not only does it give these moldy wet cardboard aromas, but “flattens” out the wine and reduces the fruit aromas and flavors. It is not a health hazard, so you will not get sick if you swallow. This issue affects the lowest price wines all the way up the ladder.

How it affects us is based, in part, on how sensitive we are to it. Some can not taste it in mild cases, but many detect it at mid range levels and few can detect it even at the most minute levels. Unfortunately I am in that latter grouping and find myself frustrated and angry as I stand cursing at the sink as the wine goes down the drain. It angers me due to the time, money and hell – expectations that are immediately down the drain! Think ruined dinner parties, embarrassment at a gift given, even disappointed moments at a BYO on special occasions. I have had this happen at a dinner out with friends last week (always taste before pouring for a group).

The Corked Lineup

The Corked Lineup © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

The science behind it

I am going to get a bit scientific, so bear with me here. The major culprit of a corked wine  is something called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). This can come from the cork or through it. Let me explain. There are naturally occurring fungi that are airborne. When these fungi meet chlorophenol, the are then converted to chloroanisole. The cork trees absorb these pesticides and pollutants and are the culprit for these chlorophenols that then react and start the TCA taint. Another instance is actually within the wineries. The producers that are still using chlorine bleach to clean and sterilize run the risk of creating this same problem. In some cases, the problem is systemic and entire production facilities have had to replace barrels, hoses, and other equipment to resolve the issues. Stags Leap had run into this some years ago which hurt not only their wines, but their reputation as a high-end producer. Since then, they have resolved this problem.

A test was performed by Wine Spectator in 2005 and they found 7% of their test samples were tainted. Many producers are being more careful, and this issue is a huge problem that the tree growers are naturally concerned about as well. Cork producers are spending more on research to cut the problems and work on solutions that trap and or filter out the problems. All this is helping, but I am still finding problems when I pop a bottle and it affects my mood, my wallet and my overall faith in cork.


Synthetic is Stuck

Synthetic is Stuck © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Sure there are synthetic or hybrid corks. I dislike those because they just feel all wrong. Seems more “cheap” to me than screw caps. Also, these wreak havoc on corkscrew “worms” and get stuck or are difficult to remove altogether. I say why bother, let’s keep it simple. Sure, the cork industry does not want to disappear so there are huge arguments being made around non-cork closures. Off-putting smells from something called sulphidisation (less oxygen escaping mean sulfur smells gets more concentrated in a truly airtight bottle) may be present (have not seen/smelled that yet). Another option is the Alcoa Vino-Seal which was introduced around 2004 and offers a more elegant glass stopper with an o ring, but I have yet to come across one in any bottle that I have purchased.

Evil Cabernet Screwcap

Evil Cabernet Screw cap © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

In praise of the Stelvin®

Honestly, I have yet to open a screw cap and had to pour the wine down the drain. I am hoping for more research and better results around corked wine, but also pray that at least more screw caps are put to use in the meantime, please? With products like breathable wine glasses that are porous enough to let it breath through the glass…perhaps someone can look into this for the wine bottle itself so that it is porous enough to release the bad stuff but not enough to kill the freshness of the wine? Just a thought.

This is why I am so adamant about the use of a Stelvin® closure (a higher grade screw cap). You will not, I repeat, will NOT get a corked wine from them. Many have reported that corks help release and absorb the gasses that are off-putting. Some wine makers have also complained that screw caps will affect the taste, but I think that we should all be moving in that direction. As most wines are consumed within days of purchase, at least let’s demand those short-term or drink now bottles be screw caps. Let’s stop with the pretense that it cheapens the experience (pouring out wine is a worse experience). Many mid to higher end producers are moving in this direction.

Kudos to Australian producer Mollydooker for “screwing” all but their sparkling Shiraz (as that could be dangerous). Their price points are from $25 to over $200 USD! Argyle from Oregon has moved to the screw cap years back throughout their product line. Caymus went screw cap many years ago with their hugely popular Conundrum (a favorite of mine as well). Bonterra, an organic California winery that I love, is using and New Zealand has made it a no-brainer with screw caps on just about every Sauvignon Blanc I have seen from there.

Last words

Let’s get smart here and understand why we need to not only give this a chance, but love this closure. No cork means no corked wine. Did you realize that the one bottle from each case may be corked before we even pick it off the shelf or order in a bar or restaurant?  Screw cap means ease of use, no tools required, and easy to put back on to take with you. Did I also mention there is no need to store the bottle on its side!

A trick that may help

Cling wrap to the rescue?

Cling wrap to the rescue? © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

If a bottle you opened has exhibited the symptoms of TCA listed above, you can try something that may help.  Take about a foot of cling wrap and make a ball, then put it into a clean decanter. Then pour the wine into the decanter and swirl for a few minutes and then leave it for an hour. Pour the wine into a fresh decanter, (leaving the cling wrap in the first one) and serve. The chemical reaction from the polyethylene and the wine with TCA taint will actually remove some of the funky odors and tastes, bringing back some of the fruit that was lost due to the TCA. I have not found this to work well enough for me – but that might be because I am highly sensitive to TCA. Try it next time and see! Make sure you post about it here!

Related Links

Please post your comments, experiences, knowledge about this topic that has polarized the wine drinking community.

Steve from the Trellis

Tales From the Trellis




11 responses

9 03 2010
Mollydooker Wines

Hi Steve,
We thought we’d drop you a line and say thanks for such an informative post! We were recently told about a 10-year study undertaken by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) which vividly showed what happens to a good wine under different closures over time. They tested thousands of bottles of an aged Semillon and while the wines under cork showed varying degrees of oxidation, those under screw cap were still drinkable and showed appealing secondary aged characters while retaining freshness in the blind tastings (HS, But that’s all wine speak, Sparky our winemaker always jokes that the reason we use screwcaps is so you can open the bottle and drink the wine a whole lot faster! Thanks again for the mention, and cheers from the Mollydooker team!

10 03 2010

Victoria, I am honored that you found my post, no less posted a comment! I am a huge fan of your wines and was just showing off your site and discussing your branding the other day. The video about the “Mollydooker Shake” is amazing and the entire concept about the nitro bubble keeping it fresh is really an awesome idea (that works). Cheers to you, Sparky, Sarah and team for the great juice and the excellent science behind the seal!

Steve From the Trellis

10 03 2010

Great to know about the study and that this IS WORKING. Let’s seem more producers use it. What have you heard about the other closures, the glass Vino-Seal?
Steve from the Trellis

15 03 2010
Mollydooker Wines

Our pleasure Steve! If you wouldn’t mind, we would love to quote you on our 1st-hand comments page on our website, would you be kind enough to give us permission to do so? We could post a link to your blog also. If there is any text you would prefer to leave private, please let us know. Cheers! – MD

16 03 2010

Sounds great to me, thanks for the mention and the link back! I’m sure I have pleny of other quotes as well. I have told many of my friends time and time again that when I am going through “tasters block”, and end up dumping or passing on bottles I open, I feel that perhaps my taste buds have gone wrong – and panic. I always go to a bottle of Mollydooker and “realign” them! The Boxer or Two Left Feet always come to my rescue!

Cheers! Steve From the Trellis

11 03 2010
Randi Klein

Prefer no cork because I had trouble getting some out and got pieces of it in the wine. Funny though, what would be on the cover of dad’s old wine guide he wrote if there were never corks? Will have to spread the word to drink Mollydooker Wine with those screw caps – it sounds like the wine will taste better and last longer and I won’t have cork problems 🙂 Perhaps a good buy for the upcoming holiday. Thanks for posting.

12 03 2010
jean louis dumeu

Steve, I’m a romantic and I still love the cork. For the sound when I open the bottle, for the dirt you have to clean before serving, for the little pieces of cork floating in my glass when I taste the wine, for the smell, for the nightmare when you want to close back the bottle you haven’t finished, for the ceremony at the restaurant when the Sommelier put the cork on the table close to your glass, for the drama when the cork is broken midway in the bottle, for the oak trees they come from in Portugal, Greece, Morocco, for the game we play with corks and cards after dinner [I can teach you], for the little characters we create adding matches, for all the fantasy around them.
That said, I’m able to appreciate good wine, whatever the top is made of. There is a very good restaurant in Paris,The Spoon created by Alain Ducasse, which wine list is organized by closing systems [to make everyone happy]. Cheers!! JL

12 03 2010

JLD, many thanks for that most eloquent comment. I too used to feel that way, and in fact have saved my corks as a diary to remember all those memories share at those moments. But the more bottles I open that I have wasted time, money, patience on, the more I have come to appreciate the other options. I am in hopes that the many new devices and scientific breakthroughs will help make cork a viable option without the fear and waste that have become more and more the norm. Alain Ducasse is one of my most favorites (right after Joel Rubichon!). Kudos to him for creating a list by closure! Santé. Steve

16 07 2012
Dangerous Dan

Steve – Last night me and my best 2 mates here in Jakarta got together for a wine dinner at my apartment. Among others, we opened and decanted a bottle of 1978 Domain Tempier Bandol. Talk about Brett?!!?! Phew!! What a nose!! And not a pleasant one, either. The stink was probably some of the strongest I’ve ever tasted, and, like Durien fruit, I just could not get past the stink to even venture a sip. That’s when Sasi asked if I had any cling wrap. Huh? He said he’d heard it used before to reduce the bad odor of corked wine. What the heck, I figured, immensely skeptical but with nothing to lose. We wadded up some cling wrap and tossed it into the decanter. // After sloshing it around, and waiting a minute or two, he sniffed, and handed the decanter to me, then to Bhashkar. It was unanimous. The cling wrap had removed most of the stink. So the question is, is it the polyethelene, or perhaps the static cling that removes the stink? Do you know what the chemical compound created by Brettanomyces is in wine? [full disclose: I’m a card-carrying scientist, but my subject is marine geology and geophysics. And, obviously, I’m a wine nut.).

17 07 2012

Dangerous Dan,
Thanks so much for reading and trying the cling wrap! What I could find is this:
Hope this helps and thanks for your comment!
Steve from the Trellis

1 05 2015
How to make wine at home

Thanks foг sharinbg such a nice opinion,post іs nice, tɦats whу i have
read іt еntirely

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