When I started drinking wine, I was hard-pressed to find any quality wines that used screwcaps. Drinking such wine was something you did on a dare, rather than for pleasure. For most Americans, twisting the top off of a bottle of wine just doesn’t quite evoke the classic imagery of the finer things in life. Over the last few years, however, there has been a notable increase in the use of screwcaps by respectable wineries, and for good reason.
Wineries’ use of screwcaps in Australia and New Zealand is much more common, with usage at 45% and 85% respectively. The United States has been slow to make the shift. In the past, the only wines that came with screwcaps were low price, low quality wines and the public has found it difficult to change their perception that screwcap = bad wine. For the homemade winemaker, it is useful, however, to take a closer look at the pros and cons of using screwcaps.
Why you should consider screwcaps
Screwcaps are easier to open
True, although I’m not sure that there is a public outcry for wine that’s easier to open. I’d rather that design engineers fix their sights on designing a children’s toy package that’s easier to open. That will be worth its weight in gold.
Screwcaps are less expensive
With the supply of cork decreasing, the price of cork has and will steadily increase over time. In addition, higher failure rates of cork add to the total cost of using cork. These factors have helped wineries as consumers are pushing for lower cost wines.
Screwcaps prevent cork taint and cork failure
Screwcaps were first used on wine bottles in France and gained widespread use on lower quality wines in internationally between 1960 and 1980. Their use with premium wines only came into prominence in New Zealand in 2000, mostly in response to issues that many wineries were having with cork taint. Perception and branding issues aside, screwcaps are a much more reliable way to seal bottles and store wine. Screwcaps eliminate the introduction of 2,4,6 trichloroanisole, or TCA (the primary cause of cork taint) often caused by the use of natural cork and they have a much lower incidence of cork failure.
Screwcaps minimize or eliminate oxidation
This one is both a pro and a con, depending on who you’re talking to. While it is true that the current screwcap design does not allow for oxygen to gradually and slowly come into contact with wine, there is not unanimous agreement on whether or not this is a good thing. Some enologists will tell you that limited and gradual exposure to oxygen benefits the maturity of the wine, others in the industry will disagree on two fronts. First, modern corks actually allow for very little, if any, oxygen into the bottle. Additionally, there is no definitive evidence that this helps wine and certainly there are many who feel that any exposure represents a risk.
So, what are the cons
Screwcaps keep my wine from getting the oxygen it needs
If you are in the “oxygenation” camp, you probably are not too keen on using the current screwcap model as it does not allow for the slow introduction of O2. There is, however, a fix in the works. Recently, UC Davis awarded Tim Keller $15,000 for his newest venture…the creation of a breathable screwcap designed to allow for the best of both worlds.
Corks are a greener option than screwcaps
Because of the renewable nature of cork and the process used to create screwcaps, the widespread opinion is that corks are, indeed, a greener option. Screwcaps are made from recyclable aluminum, but most waste and recycling facilities fail to capture them in their process, due to the small size of the screwcap.
Screwcap-ready bottles are harder to find
It’s also true that cork-ready bottles are much more common, come in more varieties and are much easier to get your hands on, especially in the United States. If this is your only objection, the good news is that this will most certainly change over time with the increase of their use by Kendall Jackson, Beringer, Silverado and others.
Given the current trends, I can certainly foresee the day when we all look back nostalgically and remember a time when wines had real cork in the bottle. While it may be difficult for some to overcome the aesthetic deficiency of a screwcap, they are becoming more popular every day and certainly are worth consideration in your home winemaking endeavors.