Corks, Fake Corks and Screwcaps: What You Should Know


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Maybe you’ve noticed: There’s a revolution happening in wine closures.

A generation ago, only cheap jug wines used screwcaps. But now, “U.S.-produced premium wineries have begun adopting screwcaps and synthetic stoppers—largely without fanfare or consumer resistance,” a leading wine trade publication recently reported.

What’s Going on and What Does It Mean to You?

Natural cork from Quercus suber—the cork tree—became the mainstay closure centuries ago, after advances in bottle-making gave winemakers a consistent, reliable receptacle for corks. The invention of the corkscrew helped, too; for the first time, a cork could be driven fully into the neck of the bottle.

But as brilliant as cork was as a wine-bottle closure, around the late 1990s or so, consumers and winemakers alike began to voice increasing frustration at the age-old problem of “corked wines”—corks contaminated with 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, the chemical compound that leaves wines tasting of wet cardboard.

Into the fray stepped alternative closures, first cork facsimiles made of synthetic materials, then screwcaps. And in the past several years, the fierce competition for market share seems to have made all the options better.

A Stelvin closure. Image from Amcor.

A Stelvin closure. Image from Amcor.

The incidence of corked wines is generally thought to be down dramatically in the past decade, and might be as low as 1 percent.

This is good news for wine lovers, since the traditional single-piece natural cork is still the favored choice for long-term aging (while less-expensive multipiece or colmated corks are intended for shorter-term use).

How Cork Is Green

Some winemakers (and drinkers) still like cork for tradition’s sake. Another point in cork’s favor is that it’s a natural, renewable option. After all, cork trees aren’t cut down—instead, the bark is harvested, by hand, every nine years. The cork industry makes the point that it helps sustain millions of acres of richly diverse forest lands.

More and more corks are being recycled as well. CorkForest is one program—their dropboxes can be found at all Whole Foods markets, among other locations. CorkForest has partnered with companies who put the collected corks to a wide range of uses, including mixing the cork with recycled newspaper for use in wine shippers, and in fishing bobbers.

Another big program is ReCORK, backed by the cork company Amorim, which claims to have collected more than 49,000,000 corks. Go here and enter your location, and they’ll tell you where you can drop off your corks.

The "Select bio" cork. Image from Nomacorc.

The “Select bio” cork. Image from Nomacorc.

Non-cork Closures Have Stepped up Their Game, Too

If you’ve pulled one (or more) out recently, you know that synthetic stoppers have become much easier to remove than they were a decade ago. In addition, on the sustainability front, one company, Nomacorc, has come up with a closure that looks like a cork but is actually ethylene, a kind of plastic made from ethanol that itself is derived from Brazilian sugarcane. Because the growing sugarcane plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the “Select bio” cork has a certified carbon footprint of zero.

This cork also comes in different versions that allow winemakers to dial in their preferred oxygen ingress. Too much oxygen can be bad for a wine, robbing it of color and vibrancy, but a completely anaerobic environment can also make a wine “reductive,” which is a fancy wine term for stinky.

That was a particular problem with screwcaps when they began to gain fine-wine market share, but the big screwcap makers, like Stelvin, now offer caps that promise precise, predictable levels of oxygen transfer.

What’s this all mean for you as a consumer? Basically, that wineries have more good closure options to choose from than they ever have. And that means you really can’t judge a wine by its closure anymore.

Got a big stash of corks? Click on these links for ideas for making use of them:

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