Harwigs’ Sommelier Mike Lang asks the question on everyone’s mind: Which are better: Corks or Screwcaps?

Ahhh…the argument continues over the enclosures of wine bottles… the screw cap vs. the cork. What is the age old saying? “Go with what you know”? However, does this really apply in this case? We are so used to opening bottles with a cork that some folks just can’t accept the screw cap or any other substitute. Is there a right and wrong answer to this conundrum?

The fact of the matter is that 85% of the wine purchased in the United States is consumed within 45 minutes of purchase. Meaning: most folks go to the wine shop or liquor store, buy the bottle, then go somewhere and open it. In realizing that point, why use the cork ever? 
Well, this subject has had the wine industry researching for years. There is only one way to recognize whether or not the plastic enclosure or the screw cap work for aging and that has been put to the test. So, after years of study, the industry has come to a conclusion; use the cork when you have a wine worthy of aging and use the screw cap for the rest. What has been learned from the screw cap is that once the fastener has been put in place, wine will keep just as fresh for about ten years. You lay a bottle down and open it years later and it will have the same characteristics as the day it was bottled. An added feature to the screw cap is that if you don’t finish the bottle, you re-cap it and throw it in the fridge. It will just as good the next day.
The subject of the cork is a keyhole to yesteryear. The cork was worldwide sensation as until that time they were stuffing rags soaked in into the openings of clay and ceramic containers to keep the wine. Actually, cork is the bark of the “Cork Oak” tree. It was brought to into use originally by the Spanish and Portuguese where we find these trees are growing plentiful. In fact, more than half the world’s cork is produced in Portugal. Now you say to yourself…produced? Yes, cork is a huge cash crop that can only been raised in certain climates in particular parts of the Mediterranean. These trees are also found growing in Sardinia, Sicily, Algeria, Morocco and Corsica. You must wait until the tree is at least 25 years old to begin harvesting its bark. Once the tree is mature, you then harvest every 9 or 10 years. These trees can live for 200 years, so you can see the sustainability of the industry. The bark is striped from the tree in long planks. It is then stacked and allowed to dry and season for about 3 or 4 months. They bring the stacks to a large pot of boiling water this removes bacteria’s and creates elasticity. Strips are cut to the actual width of the cork and then hand punched at a right angle to the growth of the tree. We now have the product that will be forced into the bottles. 
The next procedure is to grade the cork as we are dealing a variable product. There are 8 levels of quality cork grades. Special care is taken as this will greatly reduce the likelihood of contamination. Once graded, it is the quality of the cork that dictates the price and potential life of the cork. By taking a close look at the procedure of producing the cork…we see a very labor intensive, yet ancient industry. As opposed to the screw cap. This is an aluminum alloy product, which can be mass produced and recycled at a very low cost. 
The decision of using cork is up to the winery and /or the winemaker. It can be a matter of economics or quality. When you have a wine you just made from a fabulous vintage and you are planning on laying these bottles down to create something very special in 7 to 15 years. You will seek out high quality cork. We find collectors and traders of fine wine have a unique appreciation for the quality of the wine which can only be achieved through the aging process. It becomes quite subjective because some winemakers may also decide to go with the screw cap in order to guarantee quality of the juice in the bottle for the next 10 years.
We also have the ritual of pulling the cork. It adds to the romance of opening a bottle. It makes it a special occasion…well, more special.  However, like we said, this is a practice that has been used for years…does it really add to the celebration? I really don’t believe there is a right and wrong answer to this question. Another good point is that it never hurts a young wine to breath…that is, opening the and give it some time before pouring. This applies regardless of the enclosure.
It has to do with the purchaser’s opinion whilst making their wine buying decision. Am I buying this as an investment or for a special occasion? Am I making this purchase for a dinner party? Am I buying this wine because I just purchased a beautiful cut of fish? Could this be the wine I keep in the fridge for dinner the next few evening? You see where I’m going with this. So, next time it strikes your fancy to make a wine purchase, realize that the enclosure does not dictate the quality in the bottle. It has to do with what you have planned for your wine experience.
Stop in to Harwigs for dinner in Steamboat Springs, where we have the biggest wine selection (over 800 labels) in Routt County and let us decant your next bottle for you!