Cork vs. Screw Cap: A Debate for the Ages

By Levi Sumagaysay | April 20, 2020 | Food & Drink

A new study aims for closure on the wine debate.

050212Enhanced081-0001.jpgCade winery offers screw-cap and cork wines, along with a stunning view.

You’re at a fancy restaurant dressed to the nines and expecting an unforgettable experience. You get ready for your wine to be uncorked before you. But there is no corkscrew—your server, instead, twists the cap off that bottle of cabernet. If that turned you off, you’re not alone.

Diners at Alexander’s Steakhouse sometimes send back bottles when they find out they’re screw-capped, says Sean Widger, the restaurant’s sommelier, who took part in a recent panel discussion with winemakers at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Cork is “a tradition we grew up with,” says Danielle Cyrot, winemaker at Cade winery (cadewinery.com), who was also on the panel. She acknowledged that some people equate screw caps with the (cheaper) Gallo jug mentality.

But can people really taste the difference? Cade and Napa Valley-based parent company PlumpJack Winery (plumpjackwinery.‌com), which are among the higher-end wineries that use screw caps, commissioned a study. Annegret Cantu was the lead UC Davis researcher on the study, which included a blind tasting of sauvignon blanc by 11 panelists, who were mostly unable to discern which wines were which. The findings, presented before the American Society for Enology and Viticulture in 2015, did show some differences among the wines closed with cork, synthetic cork and screw caps. Among the differences noted in the study was browning of white wine. But, “overall, there was no difference by closure,” Cantu says.

Also on the panel: PlumpJack General Manager John Conover, who co-owns the winery with San Francisco billionaire Gordon Getty and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Conover recounted opening an older wine for a special dinner and finding it ruined, aka “corked.” Cork taint—primarily caused by a chemical compound called trichloroanisole (TCA) that can seep its way into cork or wine barrels and cause a moldy smell or flavor in wine—is a persistent problem. In Wine Spectator’s 2016 blind tasting of California wines, it found a 3.27% cork taint rate. It used to be worse: Cyrot says that when PlumpJack decided to use screw caps in the mid-1990s, the cork taint rate for all wine was 10%.

Another panelist, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux, winemaker for VGS Chateau Potelle (vgschateaupotelle.com) in St. Helena, called screw caps a “genius marketing coup” that he has nothing against. “I have no religion,” he says. He warned it’s too early to tell whether screw caps can consistently lead to high-quality aged wine. A knock against screw caps is that they can be so airtight that they don’t allow enough oxygen into a bottle, causing reductive notes that could be unpleasant, such as aromas of rotten cabbage.

That’s something that PlumpJack is planning to continue to study. “We want to see how it ages out,” Conover says.

Another French winemaker—who was not part of the panel, but who shared his thoughts about cork versus screw caps—is more of a traditionalist. Olivier Humbrecht’s family has made wine since the 17th century. “Cork gives complexity,” he says. He also says it’s better for the environment, a common argument made by proponents of cork: that we need the trees that produce the bark from which cork comes because we need oxygen. Cyrot counters that because of all the work that goes into harvesting, processing and bottling wine that could later go bad, cork closures aren’t necessarily greener. The cork industry is working to reduce taint by changing processes, curtailing the use of chlorine for sanitation and employing new technology to detect TCA.

At the blind tasting for guests at the Commonwealth Club panel, two people were able to tell the difference between cork and screw-cap wines and two couldn’t. I did my own blind tasting of the Cade 2012 cabernet with screw cap and cork and found I was able to distinguish between the bottles with the different closures. But it’s possible it was just a lucky guess.

“The only thing that counts is your taste,” Fourmeaux says. “It’s not that wine should have a score of 98. It should be about your mood. Enjoy it.”

CadeNapaCabNoBackground.jpg2012ReserveCab.jpg



Photography by: courtesy of brand