When I think of wine bottle closures – and who doesn’t think of wine bottle closures every once in a while? – I’m reminded of a classic Jerry Seinfeld bit.
“I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people,” Seinfeld says. “They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that.”
You can sort of guess why they’re staying with the sticks. They work relatively well, especially when they’re matched with the bite-size style of food they’re meant to pick up. (Chopsticks: horrible for soup and massive porterhouse steaks.) What’s that old saying? A billion Chinese people can’t be wrong?
In the wine world, specifically where bottle closures are concerned, such a unified mindset does not exist. There is no consensus about which kind of bottle closure is best for business, which means thousands of winemakers can be right, and thousands more can also be right, even when they’re using different equipment. The traditionalists still swear by the cork, despite its drawbacks, and others have gravitated away from natural closures — or stoppers, as they’re also called — in favor of other newfangled implements, mostly synthetic corks and screw tops.
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None of them is perfect. Each has its benefits and handicaps — just like chopsticks. In Seinfeld’s bit, he goes on to imply that the Chinese should have, at some point, recognized that a farmer uses a shovel, which is the agrarian equivalent of a spoon. “There it is,” he says. “You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues.” Even though natural corks can be pricey and somewhat risky due to contamination — making them as metaphorically inefficient as pool cues in a farm field, or chopsticks in a soup bowl — it’s safe to predict that natural corks will never go away completely, at least not for certain wine styles. Those styles would fall mostly within the small percentage of wines that have the potential to continue to improve after they’ve been bottled. The so-called fine wines of the world.
Natural cork is a thing of beauty, a product of the earth. It comes from the bark of — hold on to your hat for this one — the cork tree. That’s a type of oak that grows best in Portugal and Spain. Portugal is the bull’s-eye of the wine-cork dartboard (which, coincidentally, is also made of cork), considering that the country produces about half of the world’s corks.
Unquestionably, natural corks are still the No. 1 wine bottle stoppers on earth and have been for at least a couple hundred years. But competition has been creeping in for about the past 30. Today that competition includes agglomerate corks (the plywood of corks, they’re made of cork pieces pressed and glued together), synthetic corks (which are made of various plastics — in a delightful range of colors!) and, of course, the much-debated screw cap (which you might call the Stelvin closure if you’re prone to calling all facial tissue Kleenex). On the sparkling wine side there’s also the crown cap, which pops off with a bottle opener. Look for those stoppers on some bottles of prosecco and of-the-moment petillant-naturel, or “pet-nat” if you’re in a hurry.
You’ve seen versions of the screw cap topping bottles of olive oil and surely wine, too, and maybe you have wondered if that utilitarian cap said something about the wine underneath it. Actually, it did.
One, it said that the wine likely was intended to be consumed young and not aged for years in a cellar. It also probably said that the wine did not come from an Old World wine region hemmed in, or pinned down, by regulations. But the biggest statement that cap made was: “This wine will not receive one bit of cork taint from me, no ma’am.” And this — cork taint — is the reason that stoppers other than natural corks have gained popularity among winemakers in recent decades.
The scientific abbreviation for the chemical that causes cork taint is TCA (for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole). It leeches from a cork into a wine and gives it a mustiness (often compared to wet cardboard) at worst, or it simply chokes off the wine’s fruit when the chemical occurs in smaller amounts. Either way, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s going to turn you away from that wine. This is what winemakers want to avoid — you being turned away by their wine — and if they are using natural corks, they risk turning you away due to a TCA-tainted cork as many as five out of 100 times. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you’re paying for those five bottles, either as a winery or a consumer. Don’t get all paranoid about cork taint. That’s not what this is about. It’s just a means to explain why there are cork alternatives.
A wine that has been affected by TCA is referred to as being “corked” or “corky.” If you’re an iconoclast, consider employing “corkish,” “corkified,” “corkalistic” or “corkacious.” As an average consumer, you’re not going to come across many corked wines over the course of your lifetime, and sometimes you won’t even notice it when you do. In the same regard, don’t write off wines with synthetic corks or screw caps. Improvements have made some of them (in both styles) able to mimic the best qualities of natural cork — ageability being the most important of those.
The bottom line on any bottle-top closure is, its only job is to preserve a wine in the way it was intended to be preserved. No one wants a plastic cork in a bottle of long-aging Bordeaux or Barolo, and no winery needs to spend more than necessary on closures for wines meant to be drunk young. If a wine is in good condition and drinks the way it was made to, the stopper ceases to be of any consequence. You’re only concern at that point would be whether to keep the stopper as a memento or not.