The unmistakeable sound and distinctive pop, the ceremony of opening a bottle with a cork – the theatre at your dinner table as your waiter or sommelier adjusts their corkscrew ready to open your special wine. The sound that stimulates associations – togetherness, distraction, pleasure, refreshment – that go far beyond just a gulp of alcohol.
Thought to have originated in the 17th century, the cork and glass bottle have become synonymous with wines since then. In decades gone by, however, Australia and New Zealand have been the trendsetters for the now popular, and mostly polarising screw cap. In 2015, 93 percent of wines alone in New Zealand were sealed by screw cap. However, in Europe and the US, cork is still king.
So what is a rule of thumb for winemakers in choosing between cork and screw cap? Well, for most, it’s very simple. Winemakers generally favour screw caps for white wines and red wines that are meant to be drunk young. The screw cap is also much cheaper than the volatile cork (which finds itself mostly exported from Portugal to vineyards across the world).
Take for instance a young, inexpensive Shiraz from Australia, and a moderate to high-priced Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux in France. The Shiraz will be most likely to be enclosed with a screw cap, as it is better suited to drink now, where the Cabernet could potentially be aged for many years ahead under the influence of the cork, letting small amounts of oxygen into the wine, allowing it to develop new characteristics.
The emergence of the screw cap was in response to a chemical identified as TCA, which is found to be the main compound of ‘cork-taint.’ When a cork has TCA, it give the wine elements of a must, mould, ‘wet-canvas’ character. Although harmless to drink, wines with this not-so-subtle characteristic usually find themselves consigned to the drain.
The cork represents tradition and a proven track record with wineries across the world, and there is a fear that consumers will not pay as much for a bottle of wine with a screw cap. However, while a screw-cap wine upends the tradition of uncorking, there are some benefits to it. Your wine will be in the glass around ten seconds sooner, with no stress of having to search the presses for your corkscrew, and you won’t get bits of cork floating in your wine.
Whether it is snobbery or practicality, the debate of corkscrew versus screw cap is one that has divided opinion in the world of wine. Personally, despite its conventionality, I tend to prefer the old-fashioned way of opening a wine bottle with a cork. Twisting a screw cap is just too reminiscent of opening a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola.
Philip Dunne is Head Sommelier at Ashford Castle, Cong. Trained by the Court of Master Sommeliers, he is part of the team voted the Best Wine Experience in Ireland 2016 at the Restaurant Association Awards in Ireland.