Like so many issues with wine, choosing your bottle-stopper may be a matter of taste. The Tablas Creek Vineyard blog has a nuanced, illuminating addition to the screw cap versus cork (registration required) debate that’s been going on in the wine world for the past few years. As the writer explains, since 2002 Tablas Creek staffers and friends have done blind taste tests comparing the exact same wine bottled with different closures, and “consistent differences” start to show up as early as three months after bottling:
Wines bottled under screwcaps taste fresher, higher in acid, younger, tighter, and more mineral. Wines bottled under cork taste softer, sweeter, richer, more open, and more evolved. Which is better is not a simple question, and it depends on what we want out of the wine. For an aromatic white, or for our Rose, we like the brightness and freshness that the screwcap provides, and feel that the screwcap will have the additional benefit of keeping these wines (which are typically meant to be enjoyed young) tasting youthful longer. But those same characteristics do not benefit most of our reds, and they do not benefit our Roussanne-based whites, all of which we want to develop that softness and sweetness that time brings to wines meant to age.
There is logic to this. Corks come from the bark of cork oaks, and have a flavor (if untainted) similar to gentle oak from a barrel. In addition, they provide a measure of oxygen exchange with the wine (even if they provide a perfect seal between the wine and the outside air, corks contain oxygen in their pores and share that with the wine). Screwcaps provide a better seal, but don’t provide either the flavor exchange or the oxygen exchange that a cork does. (New models of screwcap allow a tiny oxygen exchange with the air outside, but are new enough that we haven’t felt comfortable experimenting yet.)
As Chowhounder jpschust points out, the cork also gives you some potentially important information about the wine that you might miss just by tasting. Inspecting the cork:
helps you evaluate whether the wine may be tainted and alerts you to potential issues you might be tasting. Is it that the wine’s not ready or is it that the wine has gone bad due to poor storage?
Looking at the cork could come in quite handy if you know how to read the signs, and cork is certainly still the most ecofriendly choice. But these days I tend to prefer higher-acid, more mineral wines (especially in the summer), so I may start to seek out screw caps more often. Do you have a favorite wine that’s made the jump to screw cap bottling, and have you noticed a difference in taste?