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Aug 9, 2010 06:26 PM

Screwtops/Synthetic Corks...

I notice many of my favorite vineyards, Marques de Riscal, Guigal, and such, reputable producers that I've known and enjoyed over the years, have started switching to synthetic corks and screwtops. I rather dislike this. With older wines, I like seeing the sulfites and residue on the cork, a feature the synthetic wines seem to have less of, to smell later, and I enjoy uncorking a bottle and keeping the cork as a souvenir. What's with the change? I find it extremely irritating and less fun. Though the taste is, of course, the most important aspect, I wonder what will become of the cork for usage in wine bottles, or whether it's just going out of fashion.

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    1. I have no problem at all with screw caps, but I hate synthetic corks. Synthetic corks should be banned from any wine that costs over $3. LOL!

      I did however have a 1/2 bottle of Sineann pinot noir this past weekend that had a glass closure on it. First time I have ever seen it, and pretty novel. No idea how they will hold up for the long term, but regardless, I kept the bottle and the glass "cork," and will use it to recork bottles I don't finish to put in the fridge overnight. Anyone else seen these glass closures? -mJ

      7 Replies
      1. re: njfoodies

        Screw tops have a lower failure rate than Portuguese Cork, which can be as high as 1 bottle in 15 for natural cork. Also the market for good grade cork is very tight now, meaning the price has gone out of sight In a producer in Italy that I visited his cork price per cork is higher than the cost of the bottle!!

        1. re: ospreycove

          The market is so tight because for years the cork industry has been harvesting the corks prematurely. They just can't grow trees fast enough, and they take many years to mature. Instead of letting these mature, they are being cut down and harvested decades too early! Screw caps are a great option in my opinion, and I wish more wineries would switch to them. It is however nice to see many of my favorite wines going to Hitching Post, Loring, etc.... -mJ

          1. re: njfoodies

            NJ People have to overcome the stigma of screw caps that associate it with cheap flavored winrs of the 70s. When you can pour fine wine and rarely have a "corked" bottle, that is reason enough for me to welcome the innovative screw cap.

            1. re: njfoodies

              "they are being cut down and harvested decades too early"

              Cork trees ( Quercus Suber ) don't get cut down:
              During a harvest, the outer bark of a cork oak’s trunk and major branches is carefully stripped by hand – no mechanical stripping devices are allowed. Then they slit the outer bark and peel it away from the tree.
              A cork tree regenerates its outer layer 12 or 13 times during its 150-year lifetime. The first stripping of the cork bark occurs when the tree is between 15 and 20 years of age, with subsequent yields at 9 to 10 year intervals.


              1. re: RicRios

                Good info....I am assuming that I read the article wrong, and they they were just being harvested too early or something. No idea as I read this article 5-10 years ago. -mJ

                1. re: njfoodies

                  There IS "harvesting," but as RicRios points out, that is totally different, than cutting down the trees. Those are far too valuable to allow anything to happen to them. The cork oaks are kind of like stone crabs, one can harvest the one claw (will be the other claw next season) and never kill the crab. Now, the crab might not be happy, but that is fodder for a different board.

                  Where the problem seems to come in is not the tree, its bark, its initial processing, but with the sterilization - using chlorine, which interacts with naturally occurring bacteria.

                  I still miss my corks, but have to admit that with a 100% "batting average," so far, I am finally embracing the Stelvin, and others. I have gone from always having a mixed case of wines to return, to only a bottle here, and there. Times change, and so must I.


              2. re: njfoodies

                They CUT DOWN trees to harvest bark for cork? Really? Where did you learn this? I'm fascinated.

          2. I rather like metal screwcaps, but where I live all glass gets recycled, so I need to cut off the metal sleeve before sending the empty bottle out for recycling. That's sort of a pain. I don't mind synthetic/plastic corks, but would be really interested to hear why some people don't like them.

            20 Replies
            1. re: Tripeler

              «I don't mind synthetic/plastic corks, but would be really interested to hear why some people don't like them.»

              Several reasons. First and foremost, wines oxidize quicker under many of them. Some are very hard to remove from bottles. Many strip the teflon coating off corkscrew worms. A number of them are just plain ugly. And they're not always recyclable.

              The models with a pliable skin and foam interior seem least prone to these problems. But even with those, you're best off using an uncoated corkscrew and buying only wines for short-term consumption.

              1. re: carswell

                I disagree carswell...
                Ive returned many mid and high end bottles of wine to the SAQ (for those who dont know...the only place legally allowed to sell liquor in quebec aside from restaurants) because they had gone off.
                I think Ive only ever returned one bottle that was a metal/synthetic cap.

                For long term storage I would only buy real or synthetic cork..I have a feeling that metal would affect the wine.

                1. re: kpaxonite

                  You disagree with what? That wines oxidize more quickly under many syncorks? The reasons I list why many wine lovers don't like syncorks? Spend five minutes googling and you'll turn up tons -- tuns? -- of discussion about the oxidation problem and the various reasons, including first-hand accounts and references to controlled studies. For example:

                  "The other, increasingly favoured, alternative to a natural cork is of course the metal screwcap which is much, much better at keeping harmful oxygen out of a wine bottle than a plastic cork, and more effective in this respect even than a natural cork. The first serious scientific comparative study showed that plastic corks started to let in harmful air after only 18 months." (Jancis Robinson, published in 2006)

                  "A 2007 study in Bordeaux showed that synthetic cork allowed the highest levels of oxygen permeation in when compared to natural cork and screw caps, offering the lowest protection against oxidation of the wine."

                  "This formidably-concentrated yet elegant wine is worth following for at least half a dozen years. That’s assuming the screw-caps used in bottling for the U.S. cuvee since the 2007 vintage are up to that challenge. In other markets, you’re out of luck, because Fouquet normally bottles this extraordinary and otherwise ageworthy cuvee with a plastic stopper, to which I attribute the loss of aromas in my bottles of 2005 after a couple of years." (Wine Advocate's David Schildknecht in 2009)

                  "2005 white Rhone + synthetic cork = 3 maderized bottles and several sad and angry wine lovers." (Wine Spec's Thomas Matthews in 2010)

                  "Synthetics are well regarded in terms of bottling line performance, but they fall behind other closure types when it comes to product performance, consumer acceptance and ease of removal, with all three ratings having steadily decreased since 2004." (Wine Business Monthly's 2009 Closure Report)

                  Also, read the comments to Dr. Vino's "Which closure do you hate the most?" survey (which is the source of several of the above links):

                  Newer syncorks make a more effective oxygen barrier but the jury is still out on how well wines will age under them. As someone who organizes wine tastings, I open hundreds of bottles a year and the only ones I see stoppered with syncorks are meant for short-term drinking. Several wineries that use syncorks use them only for their low-end wines; for the ageable cuvées, it's almost always real cork. Can you name some syncorked wines that are meant to be laid down for, say, a decade or longer? I haven't run across any here in Quebec.

                  Screwcaps are a different story and not what Tripeler was inquiring about. Assuming they're undamaged, they do not allow the wine to come into contact with metal (they're lined). Trials, most notably in Australia, have shown them to be suitable for ageing wines for 20 years and beyond. Some manufacturers of high-end screwcaps guarantee them for ten years; if there's a syncork manufacturer that does so for even half as long, I've not heard of it.

                  Having had many a tasting and many a dinner spoiled by corked bottles, I've long been an advocate of alternate closures: syncorks, glass stoppers and screwcaps. But each has its place and, at this stage of the game, the last is the only one I'd consider for wines I was going to lay down for ten or 20 years. And even then, it's moot: at least 90% of the wines I taste or buy -- and nearly all the ageable ones -- come with cork stoppers. And, I've got to say (and speaking only from my personal experience), the failure rate of those stoppers seems to have declined in recent years. Which isn't to say that it's not still too high.

                  1. re: carswell

                    You'll get a ticket from the Gatekeepers: quotes ( as opposed to plain links ) violate Copyrights, possibly some Geneva Conventions, and so on.
                    [Although I don't see how you can possibly quote long articles without bringing up short quotes. Oh well!]

                    1. re: RicRios

                      Nah. The doctrine of fair use allows short passages of copyrighted material to be quoted without requiring permission from the copyright owner.

                      1. re: carswell

                        Especially considering that he referenced each quote with a link. He should be fine. :)

                        1. re: Nestra

                          That was my thinking, up until Gatekeepers rung at my door.

                          1. re: RicRios

                            Yes, when one gets that Midnight knock - they know they are in trouble. Could be quotes, or going OT, or something else - Midnight knocks = bad news.


                    2. re: carswell

                      Thanks for the reply... good information.

                    3. re: kpaxonite

                      If you read up, I think you will find that crown caps rate just as highly as screwctops and synthetic corks.

                      Something to consider is that many artisanal winemakers cannot easily afford the special screwcap/crimper closing machines that screwtops require. Nothing says "Industrially-produced Wine" quite like a nice corrugated screwcap atop your bottle.

                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        Oh and the coke bottle cap says
                        "Taste the notes of worn shoe leather"........

                        1. re: ospreycove

                          I'm sorry, ospreycove, I don't understand your references to Coke and shoeleather...

                          I make sparkling cider, and I've used regular champagne corks, plastic t-corks, and crown caps on my 750ml glass. I've actually had the best results (leakers, taint, oxidation, color, fruit) with crown caps. Bear in mind that many producers of premium, bottle-fermented, methode Champagnois sparklers use crowncaps right up to the degorgement and final dosage--so the caps are on the bottles for a long time..and those fine wines rarely are redolent of shoeleather.

                          I also keep a lot of bottle-fermented sparkling cider "on its mud" for extended time in 22-oz. beer bottles. I'm starting my 5th vintage next month. All 4 prior years in crown-capped taste and drink as well as (and leak and brown less than) cork-and-bailed bottles of the same year.

                  2. re: Tripeler

                    I looked at your profile. Are you in Tokyo or SF? If SF, you don't have to cut the metal off.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      In Tokyo most of the time. In SF, I don't need to buy wine with screw tops. I usually get good stuff while I am there.

                      1. re: Tripeler

                        If you really believe that there is no "good stuff" with screwcaps you need to do some checking. :o))

                        1. re: Midlife

                          Good grief, yes. I believe it was Plumjack that first did a $100+ bottle of screwtop. And that was years ago. If Tripeler does even a small amount of research, he'll find out plenty.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            The only research I do is when buying wine, but in California a whole lot of it is just given to me by friends. I don't specifically seek out wines with certain types of closures.

                            1. re: Tripeler

                              "In SF, I don't need to buy wine with screw tops. I usually get good stuff while I am there." I think there's an implication there. But, good for you, so it means before you buy wine, then you're going to do some research screw tops. We're wone someone over. Hurray.

                            2. re: c oliver

                              Plumpjack was the first higher-end US wine to go under Stelvin (at a slight premium, IIRC).

                              Would be very interested to see how that first version does, besides their cork sealed version of the same wine, with the same storage. We should be "down the road" enough to draw some conclusion. Unfortunately, all of my Plumpjack is in large format bottles (signed) and I have no Stelvin closures to do a test with. Maybe Plumpjack will ship me a half-case of each????


                    2. Do you think that if you were in a business where as much as 6-7% of your product could be contaminated by the traditional bottle closure that you'd be interested in switching to something else?? The real issue for wineries, I think, is the aesthetics of screwcap vs. cork in the consumers mind. Except for that and the probability that extremely long-term bottle aging is going to be different with a screwcap, the decision is really a no-brainer for a large portion of the wine industry. Screwcaps are cheaper too.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Midlife

                        Mid...I agree no reason not to have screw caps on 90% of the produced wine that is consumed within 4-5 years of harvest.

                        1. re: ospreycove

                          Seem to recall roughly that percentage being consumed within one month? (perhaps CA/US only?)

                        2. re: Midlife

                          You make a good point, as is usual. Most of the issue is really perception, of consumer, such as I. I am still struggling with other closures, but am "coming around." This is due to the lack of TCA in wines under Stelvin, or similar. Does not take too many trips back to the retailer, or "great" bottles ruined, to make a convert. Now, it's getting easier each day...


                        3. >>> I notice many of my favorite vineyards, Marques de Riscal, Guigal, and such, reputable producers that I've known and enjoyed over the years, have started switching to synthetic corks and screwtops. <<<


                          >>> I rather dislike this. <<<

                          OK. To each his own . . . .

                          >>> With older wines, I like seeing the sulfites and residue on the cork . . . <<<
                          You cannot see sulfites. Do you mean tartrates?

                          >>> . . . a feature the synthetic wines seem to have less of, to smell later, and I enjoy uncorking a bottle and keeping the cork as a souvenir. <<<

                          I completely understand this.

                          >>> What's with the change? <<<
                          To eliminate TCA and bacterial spoilage.

                          >>> I find it extremely irritating and less fun. Though the taste is, of course, the most important aspect, I wonder what will become of the cork for usage in wine bottles, or whether it's just going out of fashion. <<<

                          In the long run, it's a bit like the oft-used description of the transmission crank. Do you want to turn the crank, and have someone press the starter? Or would you rather turn the key?

                          The major drawback with corks is, of course, the possible contamination by 2,4,6-trichloranisole. Screwcaps and the newest generation of synthetics do not have this problem.

                          The major drawback to screwcaps and synthetics is their potential for LONG-TERM aging -- say 20, 30 or 50 years. Now, while I *have* had old wines under screwcap (a 1937 vintage California white wine tasted in 1979), this particular bottle was kept under laboratory conditions and perfect storage. Experiments by various wineries around the world are in progress, so "time will tell."

                          The verdict is in, however, on short-term aging and early consumption: screwcaps are OUTSTANDING. It is not only a perfect closure, but it totally eliminates disappointments due to TCA. Most synthetic corks are right behind.

                          Bottom line: while the verdict may still be out vis-a-vis long-term aging, were corks to be "invented" today, NO ONE would use them!

                          14 Replies
                          1. re: zin1953

                            What an excellent post, zin.

                            I actually seek out screwtop at times. We travel a good bit and esp. right now, dealing with a family issue, we're going back and forth at least once a week. It's a lot easier to put an already opened screw top bottle in a cooler or luggage. Really no chance of leakage. I got over the screwtop bias so many years ago, it's a nonissue for me.

                            1. re: zin1953

                              ">>> What's with the change? <<<
                              To eliminate TCA and bacterial spoilage."

                              I'd say: not really. Quoting maria lorraine:

                              "If a winery has cellar taint, that means the air itself in the winery is tainted with TCA/TBA, and anything that aspirates, i.e., a barrel, is practically guaranteed to be infected. The wine inside a barrel that's breathed in airborne TCA/TBA through its pores would be infected. Nary a cork involved. As a consequence, case goods bottled from those tainted barrels would be tainted. As always, the level of taint (ppt) will vary."


                              And also:


                              1. re: RicRios

                                Anyone know how much TCA comes from 'cellar taint' and how much from corks themselves? Screwcaps may not ELIMINATE TCA, but they sure do reduce its impact.

                                1. re: Midlife

                                  I doubt there are any serious statistics out there. In part, because wineries will always try to present the problem as an external issue brought [from the outside] by the corks. However, sources of TCA & related ( like: TBA ) seem to be plenty. Here's an interesting, if rather old, article from 2004 on TBA.


                                2. re: RicRios

                                  Sorry for the delay in replying; I've been in Mexico.

                                  What Maria Lorraine said about TCA/TBA is true. ***HOWEVER*** I have no doubt that 1) a majority of TCA comes from CORK, and 2) this is why many wineries keep bottling and barrel storage in two completely separate rooms/buildings/locations.


                                3. re: zin1953

                                  So the screwcap has been in effect longer than many may think, if I'm ascertaining correctly from the post. The 1937 came with a screwcap, then? I really appreciate your detailed feedback.

                                  1. re: zammdogg

                                    From Food and Beverage Underground

                                    Wine Corks:
                                    Pros: Cork has a long history; it has been used as the sealing method of choice for over 400 years. They’re a renewable resource (the trees are not killed when the bark is stripped to make cork). They’re readily biodegradable. And they support an entire industry of corkscrews and other cork-removal products.

                                    Cons: Wine Corks often go bad. Estimates vary depending on which figures you believe, as little as 1% or as much as 20% of all wine sold is “corked,” which is to say, damaged by a problematic cork.) Wine corks can be difficult to remove, and sometimes break off into the bottle.

                                    1. re: ospreycove

                                      20% TCA contamination with natural cork is about right. even the tiniest amount will kill the fruit and make the wine seem dull or flat. much of the TCA in wine goes undetected because people's thresholds vary. people with high sensitivity and a "trained" nose will find TCA that they are able to detect runs between 5 and 10 percent. IMO most of what is referred to as bottle variation is more correctly called cork variation.

                                      based on 50 years experience i am convinced that virtually 100% of cork finished wine is damaged to some degree by the cork. the longer the wine is stored the more likely the damage other than TCA will become evident.

                                      most of the problems ascribed to screwcaps can be attributed to using winemaking and/or bottling techniques that work for cork but have not been adjusted for screwcaps.

                                      the screwcap vs cork is as important and improvement to the development of wine as the cork was to an oil soaked rag 400 years ago. i will go so far as to predict that cork will be nearly as obsolete in 10 years as the buggy whip.

                                      synthetic corks have almost as many problems and real ones except for the very short term.

                                      actually a crown cap is better than a screwcap in many ways. its biggest drawback is that it requires an implement to open and cannot be easily reclosed.

                                      fire away :)

                                      1. re: jock

                                        I agree 100% that most people can't detect TCA, so what you're saying could be correct. It would be easy enough to prove in a lab, but doesn't seem worth the trouble. We owned a tasting bar and opened something like 3500 bottles over 3 years, mostly cork closures. Our 'corked' factor was far below the 6-7% estimates. That could be luck, great corks, or other things............... but I think it was mostly sensitivity (or the lack thereof).

                                        One thing, though................ what's the difference between today's corks and those from the Thunderbird and Red Mountain of yesteryear? Screwcaps on wine certainly aren't new, but maybe the inner coatings are what's different.

                                        1. re: jock

                                          <<20% TCA contamination with natural cork is about right.>>

                                          That seems high. And again the differentiation must be made between taint caused by corks and the underestimated amount of taint caused by winery practices.

                                          TBA, TCA, TeCA all smell somewhat similar. It took an intensive seminar for me to finally tease out TBA (cellar taint) from TCA (cork or cellar taint). And these three haloanisoles can appear together.

                                          This is not directed at jock, but not let's blame corks for what is actually cellar taint.
                                          Cellar taint can taint screw-capped bottles as easily as bottles stoppered with natural corks.

                                      2. re: zammdogg

                                        And what do you think Gallo (for example) has been using for all these years? (BTW, the 1937 wine was a white wine from the UC Davis library -- not a really old bottle of Gallo.)

                                      3. re: zin1953

                                        Ah, you have had the opportunity to do a test on long-term storage under non-cork closures. I have not. Did you have any sort of control to compare? Just curious.

                                        Now, I am a cork-fan, BUT am moving to the "other" camp, over time. Someday, I may turn my back on corks, but then I will probably be gone, prior to that conversion.


                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                          bill, as you may know i was cellerar of the phoenix IWFS for almost 25 years. we always bought full cases and stored them unbroken until we served them at a dinner, often as much as 20 years later. thus the bottles all shared the same provenance. as cellerar i would open all of the bottles in the case and taste each bottle before serving them. i can state unequivocally that the bottle variation among the bottles with no detectable TCA was enormous. variation younger wines was much less but still obvious. (the big advantage to being the cellerar was that i always made sure that the best bottle went to my table :))

                                          when i bought wines with screwcaps there was little or no variation.

                                          i did have the opportunity to compare the plumpjack cabs blind about two years ago. the stelvin was clearly superior!

                                          btw is the scottsdale chapter still in existence? i did not see it listed on the international website.

                                          1. re: jock


                                            As always, your observations are welcome by me. I appreciate the insight, especially as I am but a "wino." I had not considered the bottle variation aspect, and thanks for sharing those hard-earned experiences.

                                            As for IW&FS, it is the "Paradise Valley" chapter, and it's still active. I keep trying to drag it upscale a bit, but the general membership keeps overruling me. Though I am on the board, the membership has a bit more say-so.

                                            I am just so sorry that we never got to do an event at Backstreet, as the membership would have been greatly impressed. Tears, as I type.

                                            The chapter has started a cellar, but you know all too well how that goes. While I like the idea, it's not my real goal.

                                            As for the topic, I am overcoming my aversion to Stelvin, etc., and am starting to have more appreciation for the alternative closures. Yes, I still miss the "production," but I will get over that - in time - should I live that long.

                                            Take care, and all the best,


                                            PS - Linda still cries, when mention is made of Backstreet. We loved it.