Have you ever order a bottle of wine in a restaurant to impress your date, become super excited about the sommelier bringing the bottle, present the bottle and say ‘Voila! Here is your wine monsieur!’ – Only to see that the Orange County sommelier is twisting the top off of the wine bottle? What happened to the anticipated popping sound of the cork being released? If you are like most, you might feel as though the romance police have ripped you off, yet there is hope! You may feel as though something was lost in that moment, however, you can rest assured that in the end, screw caps & corks can live in existence together.
History of the Cork
For as long as wine has been placed into vessels, the enclosure of choice that has successfully sustained wine for freshness has been the cork. From the Greeks to the Romans, dating back as early as the 5th century BC, we have seen traces of corks being used to seal wine into vessels. Often times the Romans would apply ‘pitch’ in order to seal the porous cork and create a tighter fit for their wine jugs. Corks were not always used however. In earlier times, Greek wine was often filled into ‘amphorae’ (tall clay jars with two handles for lifting) and sealed with a gum like substance that consisted of a soft mineral called ‘gypsum’ and mixed with pine resin. This would keep flies from entering the vessel but would often dispel odd flavors into the wine. When serving dinner guests, wine was poured into another larger amphorae where the head of the house would pour a layer of olive oil over the surface of the wine then stirring and skimming the wine to ladle the beverage into cups for serving. The use of corks seemed to have been off and on throughout that time period, depending on the quality of the wine and was no doubt an added expense.
Medieval depictions of serving wine can be found in artist rendered paintings showing a scrunched piece of leather or animal hide crammed into the top of the vessel often times with candle wax making the seal tight. In the 17th Century, England’s own author John Worlidge wrote descriptions of cork etiquette in his ‘Treatise of Cider’, published in 1676. Thus the beginning of glass stoppers in lieu of cork enclosures. This was a preferred method for over 150 years, however, another problem occurred. The breaking of glass upon bottle opening, made it difficult to enjoy the wine. Shortly after this, corks returned as the first choice for sealing wines due to their flexibility, and ability to be cut. This also allowed corks to be shaped for various diameters of bottle enclosures.
With the invention of the cork opener called ‘the worm’ or ‘bottlescrew’ a new movement within the wine industry erupted showcasing true artisan craftsmanship, which adorned the new tool, associated with drinking wine. Between 1681 and 1720, all types of designs and styles were experimented with, and collected by locals as a way of encouraging bragging rights depending on the craftsman.
Pros & Cons: The Cork
Over the last three centuries, history leans toward the pros over the cons because of the wine industry’s resistance to change wine enclosures.
Biodegradable: Nature simply loves it, return to the earth corky one!
Lightness: Definitely does not add to the carbon footprint of the bottle.
Flexibility: When cork is removed from the bottle, the cork snaps back into shape, proving that it can flex over 80% of its original density and volume almost immediately.
Compression: Did you know that a cork can be compressed to half of its diameter with zero loss of its ability to flex?
Impermeability: Almost 100% impervious to moisture penetration as a result can seal an enclosure tightly through compression against moisture.
Adhesion: Yes, when cut, the microscopic cells in the tissue of corks want to suction tight to a solid surface.
Temperature: Corks can retain their original properties after being exposed to extreme temperatures (within reason).
Age ability: Corks can typically last up to 30 years before breaking down in composition.
Cork Taint: Tainting of a cork essentially exists because of the porous composition of the cork retaining bacteria that builds up from chlorine based fungal molecules. Chemists know this bacteria strain as 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole or ‘TCA’ for short. The aromas and flavors that emerge from these bacteria are unpleasant, and can be detectable with telltale signs of mildew, dank cellar, damp wood, or even soaked newspaper.
Rumors of Cork Tree Shortage: Lack of education has resulted in an unfair advantage to the corks success. Rumors erupted in the late 90’s about cork trees becoming extinct because of cork harvesting. Research has found that cork trees are not in remission and are much alive during the harvesting of the cork. This occurs with the outer layer of the bark, while the inner protecting layer of the tree is still intact. Cork tree bark is harvested every 9 years and has been a growing industry over 200 year.
Cork Breakage: Corks may break if they are too old or have shown wear over time.
Pros and Cons: The Screw Cap
In 1889, a British gentleman by the name of Dan Rylands, successfully patented the screw cap. If you haven’t seen these yet, these are essentially the enclosures on top of wine bottles that are incredibly easy to open similar to a water bottle.
This revolutionized the wine packaging industry and literally began to create a pulse that would eventually be embraced 100 years later. So why did it take so long?
Essentially the quality of the early screw cap was inferior because of engineering and machinery limitations. In order to effectively seal a highly acidic fluid, a tight screw-like seal was to be invented to stop leakage from occurring and spoil the product.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the long-skirted screwcap called ‘the Stelvin’, was invented by a French Machine company called La Bouchage Mecanique. This style of enclosure was a departure from the ‘Stelcap’ that was not mainly used for wine enclosures and had a cork beneath its seal. It literally took 12 years for the manufacturing company to perfect the packaging, and later produced close to 100 million units for a Swiss winery, and multiple Australian wineries.
A well-known Napa Valley Winery pioneered the introduction of the screw cap into the North American market in 1990. Even though this new method was adapted to a few North American brands throughout the late 1990’s, Australia still dominates the demand in the market for production today.
Seal ability: Believe it or not, with current technology, the seal that is created by the screwcap is still one of the best ways to keep the wine fresh over corks.
Easy-to-Open: Many may look at screw caps as a pro, because they can be easily opened. Some people may believe that struggling with a corkscrew may be more difficult?
Cost: Screw caps are typically less expensive than corks.
Perception: Screw caps have come a long way in overcoming their perception of being used in lower priced wines, and are somehow inferior to use in quality wines. Even though this is not true, the perception may outweigh the reality.
Recycling: Although screw caps are recyclable, they are not biodegradable.
Age ability: Even though tests have been made suggesting screw caps discourage oxygen permeation within a wine allowing it to age, research continues and some wineries shy away from the usage of screwcaps with red wine specifically.
It would appear that screw caps have shown serious growth over the last century within the wine industry. Screw caps may have a long way to go in convincing the general public that they should still be considered when contemplating premium wines.
It is important to remember what’s inside the bottle is what everyone seeks, and preserving the bottle by cork or screw cap is a personal choice.