Have you ever eagerly opened a bottle of wine only to discover the wine you so anticipated sipping is downright musty and stinky? Did you blame the vintner for selling a bad wine? If your wine tastes bad – or even just “off” – it may not be the wine’s fault. It just might be the cork.
Corks have been the preferred method for sealing wine bottles since a blind monk named Dom Perignon (yes, that Dom Perignon) discovered their superior sealing qualities nearly 350 years ago. At the time, corks were the best way to seal a wine bottle – and preserve the wine inside it – because when kept wet, corks expand, creating an air-tight seal. They were an effective and inexpensive way to keep wine from spoiling.
Today, however, a mold infection among cork trees around the world means that at least one out of every 20 bottles of wine will be spoiled by the very cork intended to preserve it. The mold infects the trees from which the corks are made, and is so powerful that it can destroy wine when the mold is present at a level of just one part per million. The result is a musty, stinky bottle of wine that many consumers, unaware of the cork problems, may blame on the wine itself.
Cork manufacturers’ attempts to eliminate the mold have not been 100 percent successful. Wineries have no way of knowing which corks are affected and which aren’t. Just two months after being sealed with a defective cork, wine picks up a damp cardboard smell and taste, ruining the beverage. The longer the wine is in the bottle, the worse the effect becomes and it can’t be removed.
With estimates that 3 to 6 percent of all wines are affected, the demand for synthetic corks and screw caps is more vigorous than ever.
Screw caps? Yes, the caps that once were thought to mark a wine as low class, that were frowned upon by the wine-drinking elite, are now being embraced for their security, efficiency and cost effectiveness.
“The stigma of screw caps as the hallmark of cheap wine is slowly diminishing,” says Paul Kalemkiarian, founder of the Wine of the Month Club, the oldest monthly wine club in the U.S. “When we started out, a small percentage of our members were very insistent that they did not want selections in screw caps. But experience, broader understanding of sealing techniques, and the issues with corking have helped screw caps gain acceptance, even among dedicated connoisseurs. Many of my wine club members are now open to the idea of cork alternatives, not only screw caps, but other innovative wine closures now coming into the market.”
While some in the industry have raised concerns that screw caps concentrate the sulfur and do not allow it to dissipate naturally over time in a bottle, that hasn’t stopped many wineries from embracing screw caps. They are now the standard method for sealing wine bottles in New Zealand and most of Germany. “Even stalwarts like France and Germany have increased their screw cap production dramatically,” Kalemkiarian says. “The result has been cleaner wine and fewer returns.”
The debate over cork versus cap has raged for decades. But the adversity caused by some cork-loving mold just might help erase the stigma of the screw cap once and for all.