Are Screwcaps Still an Issue?

August 2009
by David Vogels
One thing I can say about screwcaps without fear of contradiction: They're much easier to handle than corks.

As a home (as opposed to working) sommelier, I love them. No fumbling around with the corkscrew, and no problem deciding how to reclose the bottle if you want to save it for the next day.

As the editor of a magazine for wine professionals, however, I have to admit the closure issue is much more complex than that. Real sommeliers agree with me that screwcaps are less trouble--especially compared to synthetic corks--even though I'm sure they're all more adept with a waiter's corkscrew than I am.

And with the possible exception of the fanciest white-tablecloth restaurants, presentation is no longer a concern. Diners have become accustomed to seeing screwcaps, and it's easy for the sommelier simply to pocket one after opening the bottle. Since most people know by now that sniffing the cork tells you nothing about wine flaws, the currently accepted protocol is to whisk the cork off the table as soon as the guest has had a chance to look at it. So from a service standpoint, screwcaps and other alternative closures have become virtually indistinguishable from corks.

Where we still find some disagreement is in the area of wine quality--a subject that gets to the essence of a sommelier's vocation. Flaws of any sort threaten to disrupt the carefully nurtured relationship between the wine professional and the guest. That's why faults such as TCA are not only critical topics in sommelier exams, but vitally important in the restaurant setting. In fact, one of Sommelier Journal's most popular features is Jamie Goode's series of articles on wine flaws, including reduction in our April 2008 premiere issue and TCA in October 2008.

Our readers have learned that cork growers are doing a better job than ever before in reducing TCA at the source. Winemakers are keenly aware of the problem, so they're becoming more and more careful about inspecting their cork shipments and avoiding the possibility of contamination in their facilities. But for sommeliers and winemakers alike, even a 5% incidence of cork taint is too high. That still seems to be the universally reported level, as confirmed by our own tasting panels.

Cork-based technical closures such as Diam may be on the verge of eliminating cork taint altogether. I'm personally fond of the Vino-Lok glass stopper, an elegant solution that appears to permit oxygen transmission and is almost as simple as a screwcap. But cost and production levels have prevented these alternatives from becoming much of a factor in restaurants so far.

Were it not for the perceived problems of reduction and ageability, wine producers everywhere (at least outside such staunchly traditional regions as Bordeaux and Burgundy) might be following the lead of Australians and New Zealanders by using screwcaps for all but their super-premium lines. I've encountered reductive aromas in a wine's first vintage under screwcaps, but this seems to involve a learning curve in the bottling process that has usually been addressed by the second time around.

So let's get to the critical issue: Can screwcapped wines age? Some producers claim they can, and a few have years' worth of trial bottlings to back up their claims. In the September 2008 edition of our monthly column "The Winemaker's Art," David Forsyth of Washington's Mercer Estates reports, "The screwcap provides low, consistent and predictable oxygenation and development." Forsyth, who for 23 years before joining Mercer was the winemaker at Hogue Cellars, believes new oxygen-permeable polyethylene membranes may bring screwcaps even closer to natural cork in terms of aging.

We need more industry-wide data to back up this kind of front-line experience. I note in Wine Business Monthly's 2009 Closure Report, published in the magazine's June issue, that screwcaps are continuing to gain ground among vintners, particularly for value-priced white wines. Consumers and sommeliers alike seem to have reached a consensus that screwcaps are perfectly acceptable on whites designed for early drinking. At the other end of the spectrum, I doubt that first-growth Bordeaux will ever be sealed with anything but natural cork. That leaves a vast middle ground that will probably continue to shrink as winemakers and drinkers become more flexible.

Until some universally acceptable closure is developed, my advice to producers from a sommelier's point of view is simple: Make a good wine, and we'll be happy to pour it--no matter how you choose to seal the bottle.
Posted on 08.31.2009 - 16:11:13 PST
Without disagreeing with the main thrust of Mr Vogel's article, I cannot subscribe to his doubts that first-growth Bordeaux will ever be sealed with anything but natural cork. I recently saw a BBC TV documentary where the cellar master at Chateaux Margaux discussed experience with screwcap closures - current tests were promising, but it will take 25 years to be conclusive.
London, GA United Kingdom