I had the idea for this post during a dinner with my mother when she expressed forthright opinions on the controversial subject of the screw cap. As an Italian and a Mamma, she has to be listened to! But was she right?
Our discussion took place this summer when I went to Italy to visit her and we went out to eat. I ordered a wine, already quite expensive in her opinion, so imagine her horror when the bottle arrived and she saw that it had a screw cap instead of the traditional cork. For her the cap was a clear sign that I had been duped into buying a high cost wine which would prove to be of poor quality.
Her reaction got me thinking about the culture around wine and how a good sommelier, or indeed just an ordinary wine lover, needs to think deeply about all aspects of wine and what goes into making the finished product so special.
Many people are of the same view as my mother – that the screw cap is for cheap and poor wines. The humble cap is also blamed for robbing the wine drinker of the magic of uncorking a bottle, knowing how to do it well, of smelling the cork – all undoutedly magical moments for those who love wine.
But there are other views on the screw cap, as a short search of the internet reveals. So let’s try to get to the bottom of the tricky subject of how to seal wine best. You may want to get to the bottom of a nice bottle also as I take you through all of the most-used corks, caps and their characteristics.
The cork cap
Everyone knows the cork. But did you know it is both a wine’s best friend and worst enemy?
Let’s start with the down sides. Using cork is an expensive method and one that is becoming more and more reserved for fine wines and champagnes. The material comes from quercus suber (the cork oak) after an ageing of about 40-45 years. The best quality is obtained with corks made from a single piece of cork, between 5 and 7 cms long. But most are made from agglomerates of cork granules glued together and sealed between two whole cork discs. The long ageing and exploitation of a very scarce raw material means cork production is neither economic nor eco-friendly. Also beware of cheap bottles with poor cork or fake cork.
That said, it can be argued that cork is the best friend to wine because it plays a part in the ageing process by softening the aromas of the wine with the gradual release of the polyphenols present in the cork wood. This allows the wine to evolve in the bottle by fixing its color while also leading to a gradual oxygenation……all elements that are excellent for wines designed for long ageing.
Another unfriendly aspect to cork is that, being organic, it can easily deteriorate and is vulnerable to the Armillaria mellea mold, which gives that typical ‘corky’ smell when you open some wines. Over time, quality control processes have reduced the risk of mold but they can’t eliminate it entirely, so take a careful look at the cork when you remove it.
Finally – as we all know – cork is also very difficult to uncork!
The synthetic cap
These are made from plastics and should not stay in contact with wine for more than two years. The main advantage they offer is that they give a perfect seal to the wine, which stops any oxygenation and therefore maintains the original qualities of the wine for a full two years. They are easy to remove and still give you that noble gesture of uncorking a bottle. They are now used a lot in Europe, especially in France and Spain (while Italy clings to its affection for cork), and in North America. For me it’s a compromise choice – it’s not very eco-friendly but it is practical. I recommend that you only buy young bottles with synthetic caps.
The glass cap
Glass is becoming a very fashionable and elegant alternative, although it is an expensive option because it needs to be specifically customised for specific bottles. However, although fairly eco-friendly, it risks allowing too much oxygenation of the wine which degrades the ageing process. Which makes glass a good solution only for certain types of wine – those that are young and fresh, have already developed their full potential and don’t need micro-oxygenation. In other words – wines to be drunk immediately or in the short term.
So beware of glass-capped bottles, especially if they are sealing aged wines!
The screw cap
And finally we come to the much-maligned screw cap. There’s really no reason to fear it. There are plenty of top notch labels that produce excellent wines using the screw cap. It makes the wine cheaper because it is less expensive to produce than cork, it makes the bottle easy to transport and open, and it will never spoil the wine as poor corks can. It guarantees stocks of wines with stable levels of oxygen and therefore of flavor.
One of the excellent Italian wineries that has decided to move their entire production to screw cap is Franz Haas( https://www.franz-haas.it/) . On the website they clearly explain their decision. Personally, I agree with the move and I love the wine perhaps even more because I don’t have to uncork the bottles. One quick, easy twist and I’m pouring! I could write a lot about the wine from this producer but I’ll keep it for the next post.
In summary, for me all seals have their virtues. The traditional cork only gives extra value to wines designed for long agieng and particularly valuable bottles, everything else is just marketing!