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At the Bar


By Alice Ryan


To cork or not to cork? That is the question, writes Velvet’s resident drinks expert, Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants

Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants Kings Parade, 2 King's Parade, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell (6932680)
Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants Kings Parade, 2 King's Parade, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell (6932680)

When buying a bottle of wine are you influenced by the type of closure? Do you consider screw caps to contain cheaper or lower quality wine? Have you embraced screw caps or are you a die-hard devotee to cork?

At its simplest, the closure on a wine bottle must keep the wine in and oxygen out. Tradition, regulations, cost, the style of wine, and consumer acceptability all influence the closure selected by the producer.

Until the 1980s, natural cork was considered the closure of choice, especially for any wine of quality. In truth, natural cork has many advantages. It is natural, flexible and compressible with amazing anti-slip properties. It is also biodegradable, 100 per cent recyclable and cork forests promote biodiversity. Most important, natural cork has proven to be eminently suitable for long-term wine aging.

Wine corks (6932585)
Wine corks (6932585)

So why consider alternate options?

The biggest problem that cork has had to overcome is its susceptibility to becoming ‘corked’, aka tainted with TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a compound that contaminates the cork, causing a musty taint in the wine (think soggy wet cardboard).

At a certain point it was estimated that up to 10 per cent of all wine was affected by cork taint. This accelerated the search for alternate closures, which include various types of synthetic corks, screw caps and glass closures.

While screw caps have been around for a long time, it was really the New Zealanders and the Australians that pioneered their adoption for premium and super-premium wines. In fact, in 2000 the winemakers in Australia's Clare Valley were so frustrated by cork taint that they collectively decided to bottle their entire Riesling vintage under screw cap.

An important advantage of the screw cap is that it really preserves the aromatic freshness and youthfulness of a wine. It is also easy to open and close, and now accounts for 30 per cent of the global still-wine bottle market.

However, consumer acceptance varies. Many wine drinkers still like to hear the familiar 'pop' of the cork and are not convinced that wines under screw cap will age as well or as long.

The historic decision in 2002 by noted Californian producer Plumpjack to bottle its ultra-premium 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($135) under screw cap was a huge endorsement. Since then, many wineries - not just in the New World, but also in more traditional regions like France, Italy and Spain - are moving to screw cap, particularly for wines destined for early drinking, where freshness and bright fruit flavours are paramount.

So, are the days for natural cork numbered? Absolutely not. Cork manufacturers such as Amorim have fought back with large investment in research and development to eliminate TCA. Through a variety of sophisticated, patented processes, the quality of natural cork closures today has never been better and there has been a huge reduction in the number of cork tainted wines.

One thing we can agree on is that there will never be universal accord on the best closure for a bottle of wine. And that's okay: why would we want everything to be the same? What’s more important is the investment in improving the quality of all closures, so that winemakers can select the one that best suits both the style and the economics of their wine, and that we as consumers enjoy wine at its best.

Natural cork, synthetic, screw cap and glass all have their place. It’s fun to embrace them all. At Cambridge Wine Merchants we even have one wine available in both cork and screw cap versions, so you can buy them both and see if you can tell the difference. Controversially, the Vinho Verde 2017, Casa de Vilacetinho (£8.50) is from Portugal, where 34 per cent of the world’s cork oak forests are located. It is rare to find Portuguese wines in screw cap, but this crisp, spritzy, off-dry white is probably better in that format. In either closure it is really delicious, affordable and great with shellfish.

Cambridge Wine Merchants (6932574)
Cambridge Wine Merchants (6932574)