10 Questions about Corks v Screwcaps

The debate about corks versus screwcaps is hardly a new one, so why now?

Today, we’re emailing our customers with a 30-Second Survey to see whether they prefer corks or screwcaps on our whites, reds and rosé. We’re bottling next month, so we’d like to know what our customers prefer.

What closures do Château Bauduc use?

bauduc-1_151All our wines in our current line-up (pre-2010 vintage) are bottled with natural cork from Portugal. After some poor experiences with corks ten years ago, we did a trial using Stelvin – the leading brand of screwcaps – for our 2002 vintage Bordeaux Blanc. The 2002 bottles sealed with Stelvin are still drinking well today.

Why not carry on with Stelvin screwcaps back then?

Consumer reaction in 2003 was mixed and some restaurateurs were not in favour. The acceptance of screwcaps since has obviously changed in most countries, especially the UK, but not in France. More importantly, we changed cork suppliers – we now use two or three – and the quality of corks has improved dramatically. It’s a small point but we were also quite attached to the uncommon ‘antique’ green colour of our bottles, which until now have not been available here for screwcaps.

Why use corks?

We love corks, even if we don’t like with the way the cork industry promotes the stuff, above. Cork is an amazing natural product – the bark of a special type of oak tree that flourishes in Portugal, and also in Spain, and harvested once every nine years. We spend more than we probably should at our price point to have good quality corks – about 15p each or more (remember that on a £7 bottle, over 40% goes in UK tax). During bottling the corks are forced into the bottle and are left upright for several minutes to give the cork time to reflate properly. After which, a red wine can live for decades when properly stored on its side. Also, millions of people love the satisfaction and ritual of uncorking a bottle.

So what’s wrong with corks?

Roughly 2-3% of our bottles are ‘corked’, I reckon. The tell-tale signs are that the wine smells of damp, musty cardboard and tastes bitter and mouldy. This is caused by the aptly named 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short, which is present in a few random corks which then spoil the wine after bottling. (It’s amazing how quickly a TCA-affected cork can taint the wine.) As TCA is measured in parts per trillion, it’s powerful stuff and hard to spot before it’s too late. Cork can also dumb down the aromas, which is almost worse for a winemaker, as customers put the flat, dull wine down to the brand. In cork’s defense, it does get blamed for a number of faults which can stem from the winery.

p1000115_2The trouble is, you don’t know which bottle is corked or musty until you smell it. Every bottle should be checked before pouring into glasses at home, in a restaurant, at a wedding or at a party. When I tasted 350 bottles of Bordeaux, including Château Bauduc, before the Prince’s Trust Gala Ball in 2009 (right), 10 were corked and I rejected another 13 as being below par – and not fit for a Prince.

Do customers complain about corked wine?

We offer a full money-back guarantee but even so, we get very few complaints about corked or ‘off’ wine. We’d like to think that everything’s fine but it’s probably because our customers are very decent people who don’t want to put up a fuss over a relatively inexpensive bottle. On the trade side, Rick Stein hasn’t asked for a credit or complained about the quality of a single bottle in ten years.

Incidentally, when customers are asked to taste a wine in a restaurant, how many know they are really being asked just to check that the wine is not corked? Wrong temperature maybe, or possibly oxidation, but 9 times out of 10, it’s only about cork.

Are Reds, Whites and Rosés affected differently?

I have a long nose which picks up cork taint in a glass from twenty paces, but a slightly corked bottle of dry, crisp, aromatic white or soft, fruity rosé is far more obvious to most wine drinkers than a slightly corked bottle of red. Also, there’s the issue of bottle age for reds – our reds are better after a few years in bottle, whereas the whites and rosé should be consumed quite young. The jury is still out on the long-term aging potential of oak-aged reds bottled under Stelvin. In Bordeaux, the top Châteaux are extremely unlikely to change from corks, in part because they sell through a network of merchants who rarely accept liability for faulty wine.

I also have this bizarre, unfounded notion that a dry white or rosé, made in a way that avoids any contact with oxygen in a stainless-steel tank, would be better bottled with a completely air-tight metal screwcap, whereas a red wine that’s been aged in oak, with regular contact with oxygen, might co-exist well with it’s Quercus oak cousin, the cork.

What about plastic or synthetic corks?

Synthetic corks have their place but there can, allegedly, be problems with premature oxidation after about 18 months in bottle. More importantly, we’ve found that they are a bugger to pull out of a bottle and even more of a bugger to put back in.

Which closures are more practical?

rose-stelvin-plus-sdie-20071The elimination of cork taint is the main thing, but a great advantage of Stelvin is the instinctive reaction to replace the screwcap on the bottle, thereby preserving the freshness. You can keep an opened bottle of white for far longer in the fridge, and it won’t leak if left lying down. Even with Vacuvin stoppers for bottles that had corks in, we routinely pour white and rosé down the sink because we left the bottle open for too long.

So is Stelvin the answer?

More than likely. If I buy a bottle in a wine shop or supermarket in the UK, I tend to go for Stelvin for reliability (a Kiwi Pinot Noir, a German Riesling…). Screwcaps have their faults, usually to do with reductive problems when the wine has been starved of oxygen. Many experts are not totally sold on the idea of screwcaps. I suspect that Stelvin is fairly unforgiving when it comes to the preparation of the wine before bottling. What goes in is what comes out.

Finally, I commented on an Irish wine blog called Sour Grapes about Corks v Screwcaps, after a watching a video of respected Australian winemaker Tim Adams, and in the comments, Gerry Gunnigan posted a useful link to this interview with another respected winemaker, Vanya Cullen. Our Irish importer, Mike from Curious Wines, is evidently fairly keen on screwcaps.

Please take 30 Seconds to vote in our poll, and feel free to comment below.

If you’ve read this far, you may want some light relief by perusing the completely unconnected ‘5 stories from around the world – not for the easily offended.’

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36 thoughts on “10 Questions about Corks v Screwcaps

  1. Neil Brenchley

    Gavin – A very well written and interesting critique. On balance I think I am with you. Screwcap for the whites and corks for the reds.

  2. Bill Skinner

    I am increasingly finding screwcaps more convenient – they allow an unfinished bottle to be kept easily and safely for the following day.

  3. Martin McCulloch

    Totally illogical thinking but I would bottle the reds with corks and use Stelvin on the whites and rose's.

  4. andy s

    What's an 'unfinished bottle of wine'? we dont have those in our house (especially when it is bauduc).

  5. Janice Biggin

    I'd be very happy with Stelvin for the white and rose wines, but I love the ritual aspect of uncorking a bottle of red wine. I loathe plastic stoppers.

  6. Rob Conroy

    My head says screwtop, but my heart says cork. I still haven't got my head round the down-market image of screwtop. Maybe in another year or two I'll be more used to it. Until then, keep the cork!

  7. Freddy Price

    In UK Bauduc Blancs with stelvin are actually demanded by everyone that I know, though a tiny minority of oldies and pathetic sommelliers, who pretend that the cheap wines they are selling for £30+ would not look right with them (vis. France is even worse). At present, red wines and Claret are different because instinct still says that they seem to be inferior if they do not have a cork. The question of development by the slow effect of oxygen through the cork is still not clear.

    Freddy Price

  8. Bob Lindo

    Dear Gavin and Angela

    The answer is Stelvin for UK customers who are entirely used to it. You know I’ve always enjoyed and been a fan of your wines, so you wont mind my saying that I have noticed subtle variations within the same case. This is very consistent with our experience before we changed to Stelvin in 2003, which also coincided with the beginning of our still wine competition success. If you decide to change then I completely recommend ‘Taming of the Screw’ if you decide to do your own.

    Kind regards

    Bob Lindo

  9. ian lang

    My only reservation is that red wines that are not going to drunk in the next 2 – 3 years will probably mature better with corks. Otherwise screw tops are wholly acceptable. Ian Lang, Somerset

  10. Tim McNeill

    Preference for convenience and quality have at last overcome my prejudice against the screwcap. Whilst the ritual of uncorking and tasting may be enjoyable for the first bottle or two of an evening the excitement does wear of!

    Tim

  11. richard ward

    I think Stelvin is inevitable, but It is great to pull a cork, mind you my old Mum prefers screw caps as she acan get them off and it kepps better

    so stevin white cork red. Oh dear a compromise!!What about the Rose?

  12. Paul

    I may, much to my chagrin, drink more plonk than I care to but invariably it takes a workout at the gym before I can pull the damn cork out. Hence, I love those twist off screw caps almost as much as my wife. However, a long cork, much like a deep punted bottle, always gives one the sense that this is a bottle of vino above the norm and that in itself brings a wave of satisfaction. Therefore, my vote – for what it is worth – is screw caps on the white and rose, long cork on the reds. P.S. I remember your headline a few years back – "News of the Screws". Good one!

  13. Connol Coan

    I agree with Bob Lindo .

    Corks only for long keeping of red.

    If it works it works and I've never had a problem with non corks(apart from Plastic ones)

  14. Alec Edge

    I agree with aimost all the comments you have recorded but may I sugest that your Trois Hectares deserves a cork. In this house it tends to stay in the case somewhat longer than it's friends.

  15. Sheila

    After reading through the commments nobody has mentioned the environment! Yes corks can be awkward to get out, but when you see the damage the production of plastic and aluminium causes, why would you ever consider anything but cork? I refuse to buy wine with either screwcap or plastic closures ( even if it is my favourite)

  16. Stuart Denlegh-Maxwe

    An interesting question – from a purely wine point of view I would say it has to be screw cap especially for all wines which will be drunk within 5 yrs of production, which is most whites, red and rose wines.

    From a marketing point of view, on a good bottle of Bordeaux then I believe this is different as there is still a lot of emotion attached to pulling a cork on good red wines. If the market position is to be a premium red wine (£10 + per bottle) I would stick with good quality cork (even in the UK which is most receptive to screw cap). The latest corks which have been pressure heated at high temperature almost eliminate cork taint – so almost the best of both worlds.

    But you are the best judge!

  17. Stuart Tarrant

    Maybe it follows that from my general expectation to find commodity type food products in a can and premium versions in more bespoke containers, that I am happy to see young rose and white wines with screwcaps but longer lasting reds must have a cork!

  18. Henry Grissell

    It did,nt take long for me to become used to screwtops.there is no emotion in "pulling a cork"! It is far easier to unscrew! And makes no difference to the taste of the wine–red or white.

  19. Mike Humphreys

    I can't bear the thought of a whole cork industry going down the tubes and all those Portuguese farm workers being thrown out of work just because of the odd bottle of 'corked' plonk.

    Stick with the 'corks' — much more enjoyable . Cheers

  20. Gavin

    A very big thanks to everyone who has left a comment. There's been an extraordinary response to our 30-second survey, the results of which are being looked at in detail. 700 people have left a comment, as well as voting in each category. Even though there is a clear majority vote for white, rosé and red respectively, we will bear in mind the feelings of the minority vote. (Spoken like a true politician… .) Best regards and thanks again for your input, Gavin

    1. Gavin

      I have seen some interesting ways to remove a screwcap. To make it more attractive, perhaps we could have Nigella (and Jamie Oliver, for balance) test different methods with olive oil bottles on TV.