Liquids: Screwcaps

Okay—so I was being lazy. I was anxious to use my gleaming new Screwpull leverpull corkscrew, one of those Star Trekkie–looking gadgets that could do some serious damage if used on anything other than a wine bottle. So I decided to forgo removing the foil from the top of the bottle before pulling the cork.

I know, I know, but before you tsk-tsk me, let me assure you that I usually follow all the rules of cork extraction I learned as a sommelier: 1) cutting a clean line around the neck of the bottle using the knife end of a waiter’s corkscrew 2) removing the foil or plastic capsule 3) cleaning both the rim of the bottle and the exposed surface of the cork before sending the worm—the curly pigtail part—into the cork. Pop! Pour. Cheers!

This time, though, I mounted the galactic gizmo and jerked the lever upward, sending the worm right through the pearly gold cap of my 2002 R.H. Phillips EXP Syrah from California. Then I heard a crunch, and what I thought was a plastic capsule crumbled into a handful of pieces, exposing a threaded screwcap.

It wasn’t the Screwpull that proved futuristic, but this screwcap, which was by far the most sophisticated I’ve seen. And I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately. Haven’t you?

Well, expect to see even more atop bottles from abroad and stateside—though the debate is still raging among many American winemakers. (R.H. Phillips is Canadian-owned.) While a screwcap might trigger embarrassing flashbacks of nights in the back seat with a jug of Boone’s Farm, these are not the same kind of screwcaps—and certainly not the same kind of wines. But before we go there, we should discuss why the exalted cork, used for centuries as the wine bottle closure of choice, is suddenly under assault.

Corks, for starters, are made from the bark of cork oak trees that thrive in southern Portugal and Spain. According to Karen MacNeil’s invaluable tome The Wine Bible, the composition of cork is one of Mother Nature’s most brilliant achievements. A one-inch cube of cork contains about 200 million 14-sided air-filled cells, making it four times lighter than water. Even after withstanding up to 14,000 pounds of pressure per cubic inch, cork’s elasticity magically reverts to its original shape. Cork also resists water and air and can mold itself to the contour of the mouth of a wine bottle. It’s ridiculously perfect in almost every way.

Here’s the problem. A nasty chemical compound known to scientists as 2, 4, 6-Trichloroanisole—TCA for short—can find its way into a cork before it gets jammed in a bottle. TCA reacts with fungi and moisture inside the cork, tainting it and muting a wine’s fruit character. In higher concentrations, it imparts a mustiness known as “cork taint.” It poses no health hazards but can ruin a wine, rendering it “corked.”

Flawed stoppers damage or ruin billions of dollars’ worth of wine every year at a rate of 10 to 12 percent of bottles, on average. Is that acceptable? Absolutely not, but it’s been the accepted standard for years because many makers thought—and still think—the screwcap is déclassé.

All of that started to change when Napa Valley cult producer PlumpJack Winery announced it had bottled half its 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with screwcaps and would charge $135 a bottle for it, $10 more than the cost of the same bottles sealed with corks. Though most American winemakers just shrugged, pioneer Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard banished cork altogether.

Then, in what’s considered the first large-scale initiative of its kind among premium winemakers, 15 riesling producers in Australia’s Clare Valley banded together to convert to screwcaps. Barossa Valley wineries followed suit and began putting red wines under screwcaps, too.

The buzz in Australia caused a stir in neighboring New Zealand that became an entire movement when winemakers in the Marlborough region—famous for its crisp sauvignon blancs—held a workshop to consider cork alternatives. The screwcap was deemed the most promising, and more than 40 New Zealand winemakers—including notable Cloudy Bay Vineyards—signed onto the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative to promote the screwcap.

So what are the pros and cons? On the positive side, unlike a cork, a screwcap hermetically seals a bottle, so, theoretically, you’re tasting the wine exactly as the winemaker bottled it. Detractors claim that without the slight exchange of air a cork allows, the screwcapped wines won’t age and mature. Of course, we won’t know until perhaps 2040 if screwcapped wines can age as well as, say, a great Bordeaux with a cork.

Speaking of the French, there is a stroke of irony in all of this debating since the screwcap of choice is the so-called Stelvin, made by a French company. While experimentation with Stelvin caps has been widespread throughout the New World, it began in France only last summer, when André Lurton became the first Bordeaux producer to release a cru classé under a screwcap: his 2003 Château Couhins-Lurton, along with a 2003 Château La Louvière Pessac-Léognan and a 2003 Château Bonnet Entre-Deux-Mers. The biggest news out of France, however, was that first-growth estate Château Margaux bottled a small amount of its second wine, Pavillon Rouge, under a Stelvin screwcap to study how it ages. From there, it’s only a matter of time before other French producers follow suit.

Convinced? If not, you must have really done a lot of damage with that Boone’s Farm all those years ago.