Let’s face it: screw caps are becoming more and more widely used these days but, for centuries, the cork was the only practical means of sealing a wine bottle. And, in the main, it was very good at its job: corks are very slightly porous to air, but not to liquids so they allow tiny quantities of air into the bottle to allow the wine to develop at just the right rate. And, if the bottle is stored on its side and so the cork is kept moist, it expands to fill the neck of the bottle and prevents too much air getting in to spoil the wine.
But it’s not perfect: it is estimated that up to 3% of corks (that’s roughly 1 in every 35) are faulty, generally because they are affected by compounds that cause a musty smell and taste – something we call ‘corked’ or ‘corkiness’. At low levels, the problem is difficult to detect and may simply make the wine taste flat and lacking in fruit. At its worst, however, it can be really unpleasant with a lingering taste for anyone unfortunate enough to miss the foul smell and put the wine in their mouth.
If you want to avoid this risk, there are a number of alternatives:
the new ‘technical’ corks, such as Diam (the two on the right) and Nomacorc (on the left including the black one), seem to offer all the advantages of traditional corks without the problems (except they are expensive) and glass stoppers are even pricier (and a friend of mine couldn’t work out how to open one – no, taking a hammer to it is not a good option!). Possibly the worst choice is one of those plastic stoppers, which is almost guaranteed to break your corkscrew.
And then there’s the screw cap. Easy to use, clean and convenient, no corkscrew needed, no cork taint problems – what could be better? Except that some regions of Europe ban them on quality wines and I’ve met a number of wine lovers who ‘just don’t like them’. I accept that you don’t get that wonderful ‘pop’ of the cork or the flourish that a good sommelier produces (and there can be the odd technical problem with screw caps, too) but I’m always happy to see one – especially when it’s removed and the wine is being poured!