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Cork vs Screw Caps on Wine Bottles

Is cork or screw cap better when it comes to wine? I would have said cork without hesitation – until recently.

Like many others, I am guilty of having judged wine based just on appearance in the bottle shop, always looking first to see that it has been sealed with a cork – “None of the cheap screw cap stuff if I want to impress my dinner party guests!”

But alas, the assumption that cork is necessarily better is (like most assumptions) foolish. It wasn’t until I moved to Australia from the states a couple of years ago that I really started to question cork versus screw cap. It was practically impossible not to question it, as nearly every Australian bottle seems to have a screw cap, if not a synthetic cork. What was going on here?

Screw caps are more commonly used in Australia than the rest of the world

Here’s the scoop:

Cork

  • Centuries ago, winemakers discovered cork as an effective way to seal wine – it is a neutral material and renewable resource (made from tree bark) that forms tightly to the bottle
  • Cork creates a snug seal, but the unique material also allows small amounts of air to be exposed to the wine – this can play an important role for aging wine, though of course, too much oxygen can ruin the wine
  • Cork is expensive and each piece of it is unique; because of that, some cork is more reliable than others – bad cork can result in ruined wine, which you can imagine is a big risk for winemakers!
  • In Australia and New Zealand, recent generations of winemakers have noticed particularly poor quality cork production – their wines would end up with “cork taint” or “corked” (when the wine is off in smell and taste); because of this, most of them have switched over to screw cap or synthetic cork (hence my experience in Aussie bottle shops)

Screw Caps

  • In recent decades, winemakers started turning to screw caps, which are made of metal or plastic (or to synthetic cork, which looks and acts like real cork)
  • These wine caps are more affordable and reliable, and though they haven’t been in use as long as cork, they have proven thus far to be just as effective with ageing wine
  • Screw caps my not be as charming as the traditional cork, but they do not signify anything about the value of the wine – and they are a heck of a lot easier to open!

Don’t judge a book by its cover next time you go to the bottle shop – a label can tell you a lot more about a wine than whether or not it is sealed with cork or screw cap!

What is Cork Taint?

Wines can be spoiled by a faulty cork. In some cases this is caused by the presence of a chemical called TCA which makes the wine smell like wet straw or mould, overpowering any fruit smells. The cork may not provide an effective seal, in which case the wine will discolour and the flavours will fall a bit flat. While bottles under screw cap can be affected by these things, it is in fractionally smaller instances.

In summary, one is not really better than the other, as there are pros and cons to using both cork or screw cap. If I was a winemaker though, I don’t think I could bear to run the additional risk of a vintage ruined by cork taint!

Want to know more about what’s in your wine? Check out this article on reading the label and discovering what the additives are in your wine.

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Jill Haapaniemi

Jill Haapaniemi

Jill is a lover of all things food and wine. As a food blogger and recipe developer, she is passionate about sharing meals with others, never without a bottle of something to enhance the experience. She spends her free time at her partner’s family winery just outside of Melbourne, and can usually be found drinking Oregon Pinot, wines from the Rhône Valley or Victorian Shiraz.
Jill Haapaniemi

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