The growing popularity of screw caps as an alternative wine closure to corks has brought about a mixed bag of responses from consumers, including a solid dose of wrath from people who absolutely refuse to purchase wines sealed with screw caps, irrelevant of what’s in the bottle.
The common complaint is that screw caps have caused the demise of tradition and have eliminated the romanticized ritual of popping a cork, bottle opener in hand. The honest truth, however, is that most screw cap haters are angered not by screw caps themselves, but by the aesthetic and socioeconomic issues associated with them, including lower class leanings and above all, cheapness.
While I admit that natural corks are classier and more aesthetically pleasing, they do pose a substantial risk of tainting wine with a chemical compound called TCA, which can leach out of the cork and render a wine undrinkable, imparting foul aromas of wet cardboard, mold, band-aid, or what sommeliers often refer to as “wet dog.”
Screw caps, on the other hand, completely eliminate this risk, which for wineries and consumers alike, is a very good thing. Wouldn’t you rather purchase a wine that is more likely to be in perfect condition as opposed to taking a chance on a wine sealed with a cork, even if it means sacrificing the ceremony? Wines bottled under screw cap have presented instances of “reduction,” which can happen in the absence of oxygen, but more on that later.
While screw caps do have their merits, they’ll never be able to replace natural corks completely. Unlike corks, screw caps are hermetically sealed and prevent the flow of oxygen into a wine. For this reason, they are best reserved for wines that don’t require aging, and that are meant to be drunk young and fresh. This holds true for whites, rosés, and reds alike. Wines that are built for cellaring should pretty much always be bottled under cork, not screw cap.
Corks serve an extremely important role in the aging process since they are porous in nature, which enables the flow of oxygen into a wine. This allows the wine to evolve over time and develop secondary characteristics, including new aromas and flavors. Oxygen can also alter a wine’s texture and has the ability to soften a young wine’s harsh tannins, rendering it rounder and more supple with time.
So where does that leave us in the great screw cap debate? Perhaps you’ll be a bit more forgiving the next time you’re about to reject a wine merely because it’s bottled under screw cap, unless, that is, it’s destined for your cellar.