The difference between a screw cap and a cork? About 10 seconds.
The waiter brings the bottle of wine you selected to the table and shows it to you. What’s this? It’s got a screw cap on it. Which means that it somehow managed to get mislabeled. There’s no way a quality wine would be bereft of a cork, right? Not so fast.
The venerable cork, long a signature characteristic of fine wines, have become … well, no longer a signature characteristic of fine wines. Here’s the story behind why cork is starting to take a back seat to screw tops.
When it’s meant to be drunk young
Some winemaking areas, such as Australia and New Zealand, have switched to using screw caps for nearly all their wines—regardless of quality. The rest of the world has taken a more science-based approach. Winemakers have begun to use screw caps for their white wines, as well as red wines that are meant to be drunk young. Here’s why.
The metal screw cap may look less appealing, but it’s far more efficient at preventing oxygen from entering the wine bottle. That’s important if you want to keep a bottled wine crisp and well-preserved—which are characteristics that are strongly attributed to whites.
Breathable isn’t always preferable
Cork—whether it’s the real deal or synthetic—is not an impermeable substance. It’ll allow a slow exchange of oxygen with the wine. That’s great for more complex wines. These would include most red wines, as well as certain whites such as chardonnay.
The oxygen exchange permitted by the cork allows bigger and fuller wines to continue to develop inside the bottle. That small amount of air exchange helps smooth out tannins that otherwise might take the smooth finish off the glass of cabernet sauvignon when it’s poured into your glass. You need those tannins for the velvety feeling that reds impart in your mouth, but their oxidization is what makes them more drinkable.
Serving wine on time
So, it turns out that the screw top is not necessarily an indication of quality. In fact, it just might be a sign that the winemaker has taken steps to ensure that your bottle of wine will taste exactly as it should. That metal screw cap still has a bit of a stigma going on, though. Mainly that’s because of how we’ve come to associate the pleasure of drinking a fine wine with its uncorking.
That’s all well and good if you’ve got a wine screw and you know how to use it. Screw tops banish the possibility of broken corks, or small pieces of them floating on our freshly poured glass of wine. That’s a bit of a texture violation, for sure.
Truthfully, the only sacrifice a metal screw cap introduces to the wine drinking experience is that of ceremony. Metal and cork (the real stuff) are both renewable substances, so neither has an advantage there. It is a bit difficult, though, for your server—or you—to unscrew with flourish a bottle of excellent wine. There’s no squeaking of cork against glass, rewarded finally by the satisfying “pop!” of its release from the bottle.
If speed is of the essence, an accomplished server of sommelier can uncork your bottle of wine in about 10 seconds. It’ll take you longer than that if you don’t do this for a living—or at least on a regular basis. The screw cap is your better choice if introducing the wine to your taste buds is more important than the ceremony of uncorking.
And, depending on the type of wine you’re about to enjoy after the cap is unscrewed, you may actually enjoy it more.