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Tablas Creek has a mix of wine bottles with corks and screw caps.

CORK VS. SCREW CAP: The debate over which wine closure is better continues but for Tablas Creek, it's a little of each.

Paso Robles (AVA)

Are Screw Cap Wine Bottles Sensible or Not?

Pop Quiz: If a screw cap wine closure offered the same qualities that a traditional cork does while providing the convenience of easy removal and easier re-capping, which would you prefer: Screw Cap or Cork?

by Eleanor & Ray Heald
August 20, 2007

Before you answer, read what Tablas Creek Vineyard’s General Manager Jason Haas has to say about each. In fact, it’s a question he is continually asked. Just recently, he had his third discussion in a week with a consumer as to why the winery bottles some of its wines in Stelvin screw caps and others with natural cork.

The consumer inquired whether it was because wines under screw cap were less expensive than those with a cork closure.

They're not.

Eleanor & Ray Heald (ERH): What further explanation did you give the consumer?

Jason Haas (JH): At Tablas Creek, we do our best to match the wine with the closure that allows the wine to age and evolve gracefully over time. It's not the same for all wines, just as one-size-fits-all
Tablas Creek Vineyard General Manager Jason Haas.
methods for winemaking are not. A winemaker would revolt if told that he/she must choose either all barrels or all stainless steel tanks for every wine in the cellar.

ERH Yet, don't many winemakers accept such direction, without much research, when they choose screw cap closures for every wine they make?

JH Most of the coverage of alternative closures is terribly reductive, either taking the position that anyone who stuffs a piece of tree bark into a bottle of wine deserves the contamination they're likely to get, or talking in mushy language about the romance of opening a cork-finished bottle of wine. Probably the most public debate of this sort was played out in the March 15, 2005 issue of the Wine Spectator, where James Laube and James Suckling shared cover space with dueling articles entitled "Why I Hate Cork" and "Why I Love Cork".

ERH: Isn't it true that a significant percentage of all natural corks are tainted by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), a chlorine compound that makes a cork, and any wine in contact with it, smell and taste musty?

JH: Industry estimates of the amount of tainted corks range from three percent to as high as 10 percent. Even at three percent, this is a very large number of bottles that are ruined each year. For a winery the size of Tablas Creek (16,000 cases annually), this means that we could potentially release over 5,000 compromised bottles. If we're lucky, the consumer would recognize that a bottle was corky and request a replacement. If we're unlucky, the consumer just decides that he/she does not like Tablas Creek (or at least that particular bottling).

ERH: So it’s easy to see why so many winemakers are passionate advocates of alternative closures?

JH: Yes, on the surface, but the issue is far deeper than that. At Tablas Creek since 2002, we've bottled samples of the same wines, finished in both cork and screw cap. We've tracked evolution to garner some of our own impressions about various impacts of both options - cork or alternative closure.

ERH: Is this a totally organoleptic assessment?

JH: When we taste the wines, we do it blind, and ask ourselves (and anyone who joins us for these tastings) to describe what is tasted. We - and everyone who's joined us - describe consistent differences between the cork-finished and screw capped wines, and have noted these differences as early as three months after bottling.

ERH: Can you enumerate the differences?

JH: Wines bottled under screw caps taste fresher, higher in acid, younger, tighter, and more minerally. Wines bottled under cork taste mellow, sweeter, richer, more open and more evolved. By sweeter, I mean the way that people describe sweet oak. It also tastes lower in acid, which translates to a perception of sweetness.

ERH: Which is better: natural cork or screw cap?

JH: That's not a simple question. It depends on what we want the evolution of the wine to be. For an aromatic white, or for our Rosé, we like the brightness and freshness that the screw cap closure provides, and believe that the screw cap will have the additional benefit of keeping these wines (which are typically meant to be enjoyed young) tasting youthful longer.

ERH: Is it the same for all Tablas Creek whites and then all the reds?

JH: Brighter, younger characteristics do not benefit Tablas Creek Roussanne or the Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, both of which we want to develop the mellowness and sweetness that time brings to wines meant to age. Also,
Rose with a cork
The 2004 Rose with a cork.
youthful characteristics discovered in wines under screw caps do not benefit most of our reds (including our Côtes de Tablas, Esprit de Beaucastel, Syrah, and Mourvèdre). In fact, the only red wine we've preferred the screw cap finish on is our 100 percent Counoise that we produce for our wine club.

ERH: What is there about the nature of Roussanne and a Roussanne-based wine, such as Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, that requires that evolution in the bottle that other white grape varieties don't?

JH: Roussanne, unlike most white grapes, produces texture- and spice-driven wines rather than wines dominated by floral or fruit character. These textural qualities (a rich, almost oily texture, full
Rose with a screw cap
The 2006 Rose with a screw cap.
body, and lots of sweet spices) become more pronounced with time. Under screw cap, we've found that the wine stays youthfully disjointed longer, and displays less richness. Other white grapes, particularly Viognier and Grenache Blanc, are more floral, and also more prone to oxidation. The screw cap preserves the floral freshness in these wines and extends their lifespan.

ERH: Can you explain more about why 2005 Counoise is better under screw cap than natural cork?

JH: The 2005 Counoise is a wine that we have chosen to bottle in screw cap because it's very prone to oxidation, it's meant to be drunk young, and because it's quite floral. We've also experimented with our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, which we think may benefit from screw cap in the long-term (although we're not ready to commit the bulk of our production to that). The Mourvèdre-based and Syrah-based wines appear to benefit from the cork, which makes sense as both varietals are prone to reduction and require more exposure to oxygen throughout the fermentation and aging process.

ERH: Oregon State University (OSU) researchers released a study on July 26, 2007 (which will appear in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture) that may shed new light on consumer attitudes on wine closures.

READER FEEDBACK: To post your comments on this story, click here

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [11]

H Sutherland, MD , wine drinker
32550, FL
Corked wine is a complete loss to me because I usually drink a red wine 3-4 years after buying it. Thus, I do not and cannot prove that a wine store sold it to me. I would think that very few wine lovers could tell the difference between cork and screw cap.

George Vesel , Broker
veselbev, Kansas City area
Screw Cap

Antoine Songy , President
Robert Kacher Selections, Washington DC
Great article, thanks. We are pushing for our suppliers to use screw caps for wines to be drunk young. However, there is a terrible shortage of glass in Europe at this stage. We also prefer the synthetic alternative which prevents cork tainted wines. With education and time consumers will recognize the validity of the choice we made. Thanks for your contribution and a bientot.
~ Antoine

Jim Peck , Sr Research Scientist
G3 Enterprises, Modesto, CA
One of my pet peeves is the discussion of "screw caps" as if all are identical. Assuming good capping parameters, the sealing and oxygen diffusion characteristic of a screw cap are controlled by the cap liner, of which there are different manufacturers and different material compositions. It will educate your readers more if they are aware of whether you are referring to a screw cap with tin foil, aluminum foil, or saranex liners.
Regards, Jim

wineboy 8
Napa, CA
There are alternatives that are not considered in the article. One producer in Spain makes a cork cleaned with supercritical C02 that is TCA-free and has controlled permeability that winemakers seek. This is a good alternative for many wineries sick of random TCA issues with cork, the mechanical problems associated with cork, and cork’s inability to be consistent in sealing. This closure is called DIAM. I would think someone should research this new alternative and write about it.

left coast
Have you heard the latest? The Ozone Greenies want to keep the cork which comes from cork oak trees. They feel the trees will be replaced with development and contribute to "Global Warming" if the corks are done away with. The screw caps are supposedly not recyclable.

Nathan Carlson , Winemaker
Tolosa Estate / Courtside, San Luis Obispo, CA
We've done a lot of experimenting with closures as well. There is a great overview of the subtlety involved in selecting a closure in our blog: a discussion of the DIAM cork, which has proved to be a good solution to TCA in wines that are not appropriate for Stelvin closures.
Thanks, Jason, this is a quality discussion of the options!

Fernando Rios , International Sales Director
Juvenal SA, Portugal
I can agree with some things, but with other ones not.
-- First: everybody knows that cork stoppers are not the only the reason for TCA in the wine.
-- Second: The percentage indicated in the article (between 3 and 10 % of wines are tainted due to cork stoppers) -- everybody knows that this also is not true. These are the figures, maybe, from 10-15 years ago!!!

If screw caps and synthetics are so good why don’t 100% of wineries use these closures?

Tom , Winegrower
Magito & Co., Sebastopol, CA
So now bottle enclosures wag the winegrowers’ wines? What are you saying about who is in charge of the choices here? Every winegrower needs to fully understand their choices in every winegrowing step. Make and match your wines for the enclosure you choose. The tail does not wag the dog.

Thomas Houseman , Winemaker
Anne Amie Vineyards, Carlton, OR
I would like to chime in about something a cork supplier had the gall sneak into my office and leave on my desk. It was a flier about how screwcap as a closure choice lead to strip mining of the planet – inferring that cork closures were the "natural" choice". In their haste to damn the competition they have forgotten that almost all cork-closed wines have foil capsules covering them.

I think the competition from screwcaps has finally given the cork industry a reason to clean up their act and address a problem that had been ignored for decades.

Lastly, I agree that the closure must match the wine. I will be bottling our 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir equally in both cork and screwcap. We will follow not only the evolution of the wine, but also the perception of the wine by consumers.

To post your comments on this story,
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