Cork vs. The Screw Cap

As a child one of my favorite movies was The Muppet Movie, the original from 1979. It had everything… humor, catchy songs easy to sing along with (I admit, I had the record and rocked out to it often), a love story, and a deep message that, with friends, anything can be accomplished. In one of my favorite scenes, Miss Piggy and Kermit are out for a romantic dinner and their server is the great Steve Martin. During dinner, Martin presents his guests with the wine they ordered and proceeds to deliver the line, “Would you like to smell the bottle cap?” His delivery is perfect, just the right amount of disdain in his voice for serving a wine with a screw cap while smiling at his guests. As a child, this line spoke to me as my mom always had a jug of “Chablis” or “Blush” wine in the fridge. Every time she went to pour a glass, I would say, “Would you like to smell the bottle cap?” I’m sure I thought I was being cute, but looking back, I’m positive it became annoying.

Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more wines being bottled with screw caps. As a sommelier, I was initially not happy about this. I mean, wine is meant to be secured with a cork. How do we serve wine with a screw cap? Part of enjoying wine is the show the sommelier puts on when you order it… showing you the bottle, cutting the foil, pulling the cork (with no popping sound), presenting the cork, watching you feel and smell said cork (which really doesn’t do anything), and then pouring that first taste. What are we supposed to do now? Twist, drop, and pour? Where is the fun in that? Where is the show? Are we supposed to become Steve Martin and proudly ask, “Would you like to smell the bottle cap?”

I needed an ally against these screw caps. But who could I turn to? I talked to some fellow sommeliers and the anti-screw cap sentiment was mixed. I knew I needed a fellow wine snob. So who more wine snobby then the French? I knew I had my ally in the French. Or so I thought. I was shocked to learn that the French invented the wine screw cap. WHAT?!?! It’s true. In the 1950’s French researchers created a product called “Stelcap vin”. The hope was this new seal would end the wine industry reign of terror known as cork taint or corked wine. As you may know, cork comes from a living tree and contains a chemical called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is also found in vegetables, soil, grass, etc. TCA is the chief cause for a corked wine. While the cork goes through a process to remove the TCA, some still slips through and has ruined many a bottle of wine. As many would expect, the idea of a screw cap closure didn’t go over to big in France and the research stopped. Many thought the screw cap was dead.

In the 1960’s the Australian wine industry was taking off and they were learning that they were producing wines that were quickly becoming sought after around the world. The Australian Consolidated Industries (ACI) purchased the rights to “Stelcap vin” in 1970 and named it Stelvin. The purchase was kept relatively quiet on the world stage, but was a prime example of the forward thinking minds that would make Australian wine a worldwide power.

A screw cap is made of two components: an aluminum cap and a Polyethylene (wadding) liner in the top of the cap that is covered with a foil layer. By 1976, ACI was experimenting with three different widths of this wadding; the same material used for strips of film or plastic supermarket bags, and was using a cork closure as a control. After tons of research, it was concluded that a foil layer controlling the gas exchange, overlain with the right wadding material at the right width, was ideal for a bottle closure. In fact, it was just as good as a cork.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, our exposure to the screw cap was in the form of what it is these days. Screw cap wines were considered “hobo wine” or the wines we all drank in college to get drunk. Boone’s Farm anyone? Mad Dog 20/20? Mom’s jug wine in the fridge? Just like the stigma of wine coming out of a box, the idea of good wine under screw cap was unthinkable. This was until 1997 when Plumpjack Winery in Napa, one of the most famous at the time, decided to bottle its Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve with a screw cap. They began packing half the wines in each case with cork and the other with a screw cap. Meanwhile, Australian innovation marched on.

To further and truly prove the screw cap was just as good as its cork rival, a large group of winemakers in Australia’s Clare Valley, known for their Rieslings, sealed 250,000 bottles of said wine with a screw cap in 2000 and let them age, checking them here and there. By 2006, the wines were aging wonderfully and showing indications that this new closure would also be ideal for storing and aging wines for long periods in bottles. This was an ambitious move that paid off. In 2001, New Zealand also began its screw cap initiative and, by the 2004 vintage, 70% of the country’s wine was released under Stelvin closures.

Flash forward to present day and the acceptance of the screw cap has taken hold in the last decade or so, prompting many winemakers around the world to completely do away with cork. Industry experts estimate that 90% of New Zealand wines, 85% Australian, and 70% of South American wines are using Stelvin closures. Americans and the French are still not fully accepting of the screw cap with approximately 10% and 5 % respectively using the closure.

But even though geeks are accepting the screw cap in droves, there is still an ongoing debate as to how dramatically a screw cap impacts how a wine ages. Does the evolution of the wine occur because small amounts of oxygen are allowed to interact with it due to the small pores in a cork that let teeny, tiny amounts of oxygen in (which doesn’t occur with a screw cap’s airtight seal)? Or, do the tiny amounts of oxygen have nothing to do with a wine’s evolution because that evolution is caused by the wine interacting with itself? Only time will tell.

Consumers should not fear the screw cap, since most of us are not concerned with aging wine for decades. In general, winemakers will use the screw cap closure for the everyday drinking wine within their lineup, saving the cash flow for corks for their higher end bottles. There are some factors involved to switch to screw cap, including investing in new equipment or attachments. But overall the price of a screw cap is less than that of a cork, saving the winemaker money in the long-term. And don’t be turned off by the term “everyday wine” or “entry level”. A great winemaker will often offer wines at this level and price point to tease you into falling in love with them, thereby compelling you to indulge in their more focused wines down the road. It’s a win-win.

So go ahead…twist and crack, not pop, that beautiful bottle of wine and enjoy! If you don’t like the sound and want your friends to to be impressed at a dinner party, just take a napkin, fold it over the cap and twist. Or just own it with a satisfied CRACK and smile in the face of adversity. And go ahead… smell the bottle cap!

Fun With Wine Aromas

When holding a wine tasting event, I always have fun having my guests provide their feedback about what they smell in the wine. I find many people have a hard time describing what they are experiencing while others search for the “book” answers to try to look impressive. I tend to believe and say everyone will experiece wines, both aromas and flavors, differently. What you smell or taste does not have to be exactly the same as what the person next to you with the same glass experiences. If you think a wine smells like grapes and only grapes then, dammit, that’s what it smells like. That being said, throughout the years, many people have tried to bring order to the madness of wine aromas, categorizing the wide variety of smells drinkers experience. Most famous of all of these aroma categorizations is “The Wine Aroma Wheel” invented by Dr. Ann Noble when she was with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.

But even on the aroma wheel, not all of the smells are straightforward or pleasant. That’s because sometimes what we smell in wine can be pretty weird. Recognizing that our wine can occasionally smell a bit odd helps us recognize not only when something is wrong with our wine, but also when the weird smell tells us there is something wonderful going on in our glass. There are several fun aromas I love to point out to people and watch their reactions when they “get it”. Here are a few:

Most people don’t regard the smell of gas as something pleasant to drink. However, when enjoying a quality German Riesling, it should bring a smile to your face.

Cat Urine
Believe it or not, cat urine is an aroma many people believe helps to identify a high-quality Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a funky and tangy smell that, if you are a cat person, can be eerily similar to another odor with which you often come in contact. It’s worth noting that some people claim the smell isn’t positive, instead identifying the wine as poor. But, typically, I find the opposite true, when I pick up the scent, I usually know I’m in for a treat.

Vegetal, also called as herbaceous
Describes a wine with significant vegetable-like aromas or flavors. While a bit of this is often nice, too much can be off-putting and considered a flaw, often resulting from under-ripe grapes. Typically the pleasant vegetal aromas are fresh mushrooms, squash and zucchini.

Dew soaked grass
This is an aroma commonly associated with good quality Sauvignon Blanc, while occasionally you can pick it up in a young Cabernet Sauvignon but typically it is overpowered by the other Cab aromas. It makes me reminiscent of my younger days running around and playing outside in my bare feet. When we would come in the house our feet would smell of fresh cut grass with dew on it. In fact, when taking the blind tasting portion of the Sommelier exam, I used feet as the aroma descriptor, upon asking to clarify this aroma, and giving that explanation above, I received full credit for the description.

Burnt Rubber
This is a smell that can occur in many young red wines, especially Syrah. What you’re really smelling here is sulfur compounds. While it may not smell that great, they’re harmless. So if the wine tastes good, you’re safe to keep on drinking. That burnt rubber smell is one way to easily identify a wine that is less than 3 years old when doing a blind tasting. If you do hate the smell though, one solution is to get rid of the smell by dropping a clean piece of copper, a penny will do the trick, into the glass. The copper will create a chemical reaction that won’t hurt the wine, but will cause that smell to go away. Just make sure to use a penny that is older than 1982. After 1982 pennies have been made mostly with Zinc and thus the trick won’t work.

Rotten Eggs
This is sulfur rearing its ugly head again. While harmless, it can make the wine unpleasant to drink. This smell can often occur when the winemaker has used reductive winemaking. Reductive winemaking is a process where the winemaker tries to protect and preserve the primary fruit flavors and aromas by using sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation. However, use too much and you get the rotten egg smell. Most times the smell will blow off, especially if you let the wine decant. But if that’s not working, you could also try the penny trick I mentioned above, or just open a different bottle of wine. No use drinking something you don’t enjoy.

Cigar Box
This is a smell most often encountered in Bordeaux blends and it occurs when you combine the smell of Cabernet Sauvignon, which can often smell like tobacco, with the aromas of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, plus the oak in which the wine was aged. The result is a smell that, to a lot people, resembles a box of cigars. When you encounter it, you are typically in for a treat when you taste the wine.

Wet Dirt
Also sometimes referred to a “forest floor”, this rich and earthen smell is associated with mature, full bodied red wines. The aroma also resembles that of fresh mushrooms, before they have been cleaned off.

You will often hear people describe a wine as having barnyard aromas or related terms like “horsey, manure, animal, etc.” This literally means there are aromas that smell a bit stinky. However, this isn’t always a bad thing! You’d be surprised but many people like a little stink in their wines as it adds to the complexity. Too much may be off-putting, but a bit can be nice. This smell is sometimes just a product of the wine and where it came from, but in some cases can be related to a type of yeast called Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short. Don’t worry, it is harmless! Some people like a bit of Brett in wine and others don’t.

One of my favorite wine aromas, this is a smell that can be found most often in high-quality Nebbiolo, the grape that is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco. It is a classic Italian red wine aroma.

Moldy Towel/Moldy Sponge
You know the smell a towel can develop when it doesn’t dry completely? Or that of an old moldy sponge that needs to be thrown out? It’s that smell, when present in your wine, is a pretty good indicator that your glassware isn’t very clean. Perhaps you used the offending sponge or towel to clean the glass. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t indicate something is wrong with your wine, but does indicate you should ask for a new glass.

Canned Green Beans
If you smell this aroma in your white wine, especially Sauvignon Blanc, chances are it was poorly made. You may want to find a different bottle to drink or serve it to your unwanted guests.

A damp, moldy aroma often associated with Trichloroanisole, a.k.a. TCA, in corked wines, but can also be present in some wines which are not corked. If you’ve ever smelled this and still tasted the tainted corked wine, trust me, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a smell and a taste you don’t forget.

Wet Dog
The smell of wet dog is one of the surest signs your wine is corked and past its prime. Take the wine back and open a different bottle.