Cork vs. Screw Top: Can You Really Judge a Wine by How It's Sealed?
If you drink wine, you may have wondered why some wines have corks and others have screw tops. Corks have been around since the beginning of winemaking, while screw tops are a newer invention. But is one superior to the other? Is there a reason you see more white wines with a screw top and not as many reds? Which one keeps wine for longer?
We asked a few winemakers and a sommelier what they thought of cork versus screw-top wine, and their answers may just surprise you.
Cork vs. Screw Top: Is There a Better Choice?
The short answer: There is not really enough unbiased, third-party scientific information to make a claim that one is better than the other.
Winemaker Dave Petterson, from Domaine de Broglie in Oregon's Willamette Valley says, "There was this long-held notion that natural cork allows for minimal amount of gas transfer. But science doesn't really support that."
Now that's not to say that the wines wouldn't taste different if you were to put a cork in one bottle and a screw top on another. They will. Many wineries have done side-by side tests to see what would happen to the wines in this very instance.
Joe Uhr, winemaker of Gundlach Bundschu winery in Sonoma, did trials over 10 years with bottles side by side. He noted a few things.
"Screw tops tend to do really well on aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé, holding in the aromatics better than a cork does," he says. That's part of the reason you may see more whites and rosés with screw tops.
In terms of aging, there was really not much of a difference after year one, and then more changes started to occur. But none of the wines fared better or worse; they were all just different.
Screw tops have come a long way with liners that have specific oxygen transmission rates (OTRs), which means winemakers can have more control over how much oxygen gets into the wine. Corks tend to have much more variability because they are a natural source, which can be both a beauty and a curse.
"Corks are very porous, so they likely have some impact on the wine," Petterson says. "It's just harder to pinpoint."
In recent years, many winemakers started to switch over to screw tops because of the concern over TCA, better known to the consumer as cork taint. A bottle of wine that is tainted needs to be immediately disposed of, and that can be very expensive for a restaurant, consumer, or winemaker. Although it still happens, it is only in around one percent of bottles now that there are different processes in cork making.
Not All Closures Are Created Equally
It's not fair to say the choice comes down to just cork or screw top closures, either. There are so many variations of corks and screw top closures. Corks are expensive to purchase, so you likely will see higher grade corks in nicer bottles of wine. There are now artificial corks, conglomerated corks made of cork sawdust, and even corks made from recycled corks.
The same goes for screw tops; there are different quality levels. It all comes down to how much the winemaker is willing to pay.
As a general rule, however, the nicer the bottle, the more they've thought about the closure, whether it be a cork or higher-end screw top.
It Comes Down to Perception
In a debate where there are no clear answers, a lot of this comes down to perception. Winemaking itself is a very old tradition that has had minimal change in the industry over the centuries. In many cases, the choice to use a cork comes down to history and the fact that wine has always been closed this way.
For Alex Ring, Master Sommelier and Wine Director at Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Sepia, it also comes down to guest perception: "I would be hesitant to pick a Cabernet or a serious red wine under screw cap to sell as a very fine wine," he says. "It's less from what I taste but more from guest reaction."
Indeed, there is a sort of pomp and circumstance around popping a cork versus unscrewing a top, both of the winemakers agree.
At Domaine de Broglie, they do Chardonnay and pinot noir under cork. "Even if the science isn't there, there is something about the experience of pulling the cork and smelling it and cutting the foil," Petterson says. "It's just fun."
People don't seem to care about their bottle's seal as much when it comes to white wines for some reason, and some winemakers are drawing a line in the sand and putting a screw top on even expensive reds.
Bottom Line: As far as it goes right now, there isn't a better choice. It seems to boil down to personal preference and the wine drinking experience.