Comparing the same wine sealed with cork and screwcap

cork screwcap

The closure debate has moved on quite a bit since the days when it was practically pitched warfare between the screwcap advocates (mainly Australia and New Zealand) and those who liked the traditional solution of natural cork. Now there’s a sort of truce.

For commercial wines, few have a problem with screwcaps. They’re taint free, they are consistent, and they are remarkably convenient. I drink screwcapped wines all the time, and I don’t have a problem with them.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that wines sealed with different closures do taste subtly different, and that this difference is exaggerated with time in bottle. We know this from cork alone: even in untainted bottles, old cork-sealed wines from the same case show some variation, presumably reflecting the variation in oxygen transmission that occurs with different natural corks.

So are screwcaps ideal for sealing fine wines? And fine red wines? Aside from the issue of reduction, which is too big to tackle here, the question is, what do you prefer based on the taste? Almost all screwcapped wines from Australia and New Zealand are sealed with a tin/saran liner, and the metal layer means that they have very little oxygen transmission. So wines sealed this way taste different to wines sealed with natural cork.

So, the big question is, given the choice – and assuming your cork is a good one – which do you think tastes better?

I had the chance to try this out at Pegasus Bay winery in New Zealand’s Waipara, over dinner. I tasted two versions of  the 2003 Pinot Noir, blind, at 10 years of age:

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (screwcap)
Fine, fresh and cherryish. Sweet, lively and aromatic with supple cherry fruit and also a bit of richness. Slightly cola-ish lively tangy finish. Drinkable style, now fully evolved and at its peak. 92/100

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (cork)
Sweet and with a lovely texture, showing nice aromatics. Rich, bold, fine and expressive with cherry and plum fruit and a hint of earth. Expressive and wonderfully textured, showing some evolution. 94/100

More recently, I was sent two samples (by accident) of the Penfolds Bin 28 2012, one sealed with a natural cork, one sealed with a screwcap. I spent a couple of nights comparing the wines (one argument is that screwcapped wines need time to open out). Both were nice wines, but the cork-sealed wine was nicer. It had more harmony on the palate, and less edginess. Texturally it was finer. Small details, perhaps: they were both recognizable as the same wine. But these small details are what you pay your money for with top quality wines. The difference in scores was just a point, so it wasn’t a huge deal. But I had a preference.

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What about a triangle test? I was with Vincent Cruège at Chateau La Louviere in September and he had two bottles of the 2006 white, one sealed with screwcap and one sealed with cork. So he gave me a triangle test blind. Two glasses were poured from one bottle and one was from the other. Could I tell the difference? I thought that wine 1 was the outlier, because it reminded me a bit of an Australian white wine. 2 and 3 were the same, and nicer. The difference in score? 4 points. A strong preference.

Screwcap: distinctive limey fruit. Maybe a bit reduced. Spicy and vivid with some toast. Angular and a bit disjointed. 89/100

Cork: lovely focused wine with some richness. Great balance with pear and grapefruit characters, and just a hint of fennel and toast. 93/100

So this has all got me thinking. I hate cork taint, and the variation that occurs with cork. But when you get a good one, I seem to prefer the taste of the wine compared with a wine sealed with a tin/saran lined screwcap. What price do you want to pay for consistency? For commercial wines, does it matter? For fine wines, I think it might.

38 comments to Comparing the same wine sealed with cork and screwcap

  • An interesting overview, still not enough of a difference to sway me from screwcaps when also considering number of “corked” bottles I get each year that have been well cellared.

  • I was just having this debate with a winemaker in South Africa last week. His take was that screwcaps harm a white but saw little difference for a red unless the wine was to be seriously cellared and aged.

  • Jim Wallace

    I have lost too much wine to evaporation, oxidation, cork taint, etc. to ever support corks as a preference again. I’ve been working with and drinking wine for more than 35 years. I’ve done my own comparisons and I believe wine ages more reliably with screwcaps.

  • Jamie, I think I have to send you some wine.

    I wrestled with the same issue as a winemaker for a long time: What is worse: 100% of your wines being under-developed, or 5% being totally ruined. It ends up as just a matter of opinion.

    Choosing between the lesser of two evils is never fun – but one day I had an idea of how you could have the consistency of the screwcap AND the low oxygen advantage of cork. The result turned into a full-time gig: VinPerfect. We make a range of oxygen-permeable cap liners that are incredibly consistent deliver super low (but surprisingly impactful) levels of oxygen – less than half a PPM of oxygen per year.

    We havent gotten to Europe as a company yet, but the product is really taking off out here in California. The difference between saranex or tin liners and ours is something you have to taste to believe.

    Let me know if you want me to send you some samples and where to. tkeller (at) vinperfect.com

  • abhay

    I think this debate is endless until the particulars would not defined. These particulars substantially affected by variety, cellaring period, and condition. And, we should not forget about then personal liking. it is possible to enlarge this debate with defined terms to cock v/s screw cap.

  • Steve Webber uses screwcaps for his Chardonnays and aromatic whites but cork for his Pinot Noir

  • Laura Clay

    This is really useful, Jamie – thanks. One thing though, I’m finding more and more that the consistency of screwcaps is being negated by bottles that are reduced. They come round but in tastings you don’t have time for that; they can sometimes be really disappointing at first taste and first impressions count for a lot.

  • Kwispedoor

    “We know this from cork alone: even in untainted bottles, old cork-sealed wines from the same case show some variation, presumably reflecting the variation in oxygen transmission that occurs with different natural corks.” – writing this and then only tasting one bottle of each is clearly very shaky in a scientific sense and not an exercise that can be deemed accurate or authoritative. About six corked and six screw-capped bottles from the same wine would give better results, to start with.

    And, let’s say, when you have only one old meant-to-be-great bottle and it’s ruined badly by TCA – it still gets 0/100 as you pour it down the drain. If, on average, one out of 500 bottles sealed under cork is affected by the likes of TCA, TBA, RBO, etc, then it’s a risk worth taking. The reality is that the cork industry is far from arriving at that point, so the jury is still out for me. I just HATE losing good wine (and don’t forget: the moment with it) completely…

  • keith prothero

    Interesting. Essentially,I believe that for wine drunk very young(which lets face it is about 90% of all wine)it makes no difference to the taste whether screwcap or cork.But obviously screwcap is far easier to open .
    Fine wine,made to age over time,and wine such as rioja which is not released after years in bottle,should be under cork

    So by my logic, about 90% of wine should be under screwcap, and the rest cork——–simple

    BUT zero per cent should use wax!!! awful stuff

  • Curt Thomas

    I did something similar with a New Zealand riesling 2002, drunk at appx 8 yrs, the preferences were not always for the same everyone and they changed during the evening as as the wine evolved in the glass

  • jason carey DWS

    Well you need to do this test with screwcaps that match the permeability. This might not be an actual thing you can do right now, but maybe in 5 years.

  • The comment about tasting multiple bottles with cork based on the variation they see, I think is totally spot-on. However, there is even MORE to make the comparison cork-to-cap difficult: The glass is different – so they cannot be bottled at the same time and under the same conditions.

    The layman might think it easy or trivial but it is not, especially when you consider that the oxygen picked up in bottling can be on the order of 2-3ppm. Compared to the oxygen ingress of my screwcaps (our best selling liner is .15ppm per year) This pickup can totally blow away any difference you might see due to ingress through a cap or a cork.

    So tasting a cork vs a cap – you are not just tasting the effect of the closure – you are tasting the effect of how well they controlled oxygen pickup on bottling day!

    VinPerfect’s SmartCaps offer very precise oxygen permeability – but we still always work with our customers to ensure they are managing the oxygen in the headspace of the bottle, that is an equal, or even bigger problem.

    With cork, there really is no such thing as “control” – there also really isn’t any way to “match” the permeability of cork because the oxygen rates seen are all over the map. You really cant point at the “average” of the datapoints – because very few cork closures actually perform close to that number. That observation also reinforces the previous statement that you need to work through at least a case of wine with cork in order to get some feel for how it is effecting the wine. That is very much true.

  • Geoff Bolton

    The debate is interesting and reminiscent of the wooden barrel/keg beer debate a couple of generations ago.

    Does the argument distil to faintly uninspiring consistency versus the glorious unreliable? A bit extreme, possibly but it has that whiff, don’t you think?

  • As a New Zealand wine producer who has retained cork long after others have stopped using it, I support the comments made about the differential development of wine under the two closure, but corks are like the little girl in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid”.

    The ‘third way’ of permeable screw cap closures is certainly very exciting. Stelvin produce “Stelvin Inside” capsules which we are curently trialling.

    http://www.amcor.com/promotion/stelvin-inside-4-new-liners-for-wine.html

    Perhaps there is hope for that very desirable development without the chance of taint.

  • joe olexa

    Why has no one mentioned the major (I think) reason large wineries are switching to screw caps–costs. A real cork and embossed capsule can cost multiple times the cost of a screw cap that combines both the enclosure and the capsule. Screw caps can save several dollars per case compared to corks.

  • why cant you have glorious consistency?

  • Regarding cost. Screwcaps are MORE expensive than the much more widely used closures: The synthetic cork and the technical cork (ground up and glued together)

    Ask yourself – if you were to buy the cheapest bottles of wine you could – something like two buck chuck – what kind of closure do they have? Its technical cork.

    The over-under on which is cheaper comes down to the capsule: if you see a heat-shrink (PVC) capsule over an inserted closure – then the winery is paying less for the package than they would for the screwcap.

    Guy – how far are you into your trial with the stelvin inside liners? All of the wineries in the US who have trialed both t pick ours. In the case you are unimpressed, please dont write off the category off… the products are VERY different. Their targeted oxygen levels are much much higher – and their consistency…. lets say its not something I would have felt comfortable putting on the market…

    I put my email address in a previous post above – I’d be happy to send some caps down to you if you are interested. We don’t have distribution in NZ yet, but if there is interest from wineries I can change that pretty fast.

  • Lori

    I own a wine bar/retail shop. I am mixed on this topic. However, one thing I have seen a lot lately is screw cap failure. I have seen a lot of bottles with low fills and completely oxidized. I’ve talked to a lot of winemakers and this is a problem… Either bottling lines, glass defects, etc.

  • Terence Protheroe

    If the author had paid for this nice wines and opened them and found the cork closed ones to be tainted what would he have thought? Very peed off methinks.

  • terrytoulouse

    According to James Kinglake (Domaine Begude, Limoux) using screwcaps is more expensive than cork. This is due to more expensive bottles and to the fact that the bottling process is much slower which incurs extra time cost for the bottling lorry which bottles in situ.

  • A few thoughts and questions here:

    Lori, when you say a ‘lot’ of failures with screw cap bottles, what do you mean? I’m curious to hear. Also, how many ‘corked’ wines do people return to you?

    A major point to consider is the sensitivity of consumers to the issues at hand here. When Jamie and others talk about ‘reduced’, I would venture to guess that 99% of consumers and the vast majority of learned wine professionals might not get the same results. I’ve been around professionals who have tried screw cap wines and found them to be ‘slightly reduced’ where as the vast majority of others who tried them did not find them to be reduced at all. Could it be that perhaps some are looking for this trait in the wine itself?

    I am not knocking the fact that screwcaps are not perfect, but one thing is for sure – they are more consistent and rule out cork taint perfectly. Can macro-oxidation occur with ‘fails’? Of course – just as it can with corks.

    Another point to consider – consumers’ knowledge of true ‘cork taint’ seems to have gone backwards over the past decade or more. I own a wine label and work in my tasting room as often as I can, and I am amazed at what most consider ‘corked’ – ‘it’s when the cork leaks’, ‘the wine smells like port’, ‘it’s when the cork crumbles when you try to take it out’ – and these are comments from those who actually drink quite a bit of wine.

    As others have pointed out, there are different liners that allow for more oxygen ingress and thus more ‘development’ in wines under screwcap, and this should definitely be considered when deciding how long the life of that wine may be in bottle.

    Thanks for the post, Jamie, and for the continued education and data points for all to consider.

    Cheers!

  • Patrick

    A fascinating test, which seems to show that cork is better for aging. Yes corks are more inconsistent, but that only contributes to the adventure. And aging wines is an adventure of a certain sort.

  • And let’s not forget that we’re dealing with ‘tests’ that are quite small in terms of ‘data quality’. What would be more important would be to ‘run these tests’ getting statistically significant data by having many folks and many many more bottles tested side by side.

    Cheers!

  • So much of the issue with cork taint boils down to good quality control/assurance on the part of both the wineries and the cork suppliers. Many years ago we adopted statistical sampling and analysis methods designed to provide 95% confidence that our incidence of cork taint is less than 1% (we adopted the same sort of “confidence interval” analysis and sampling used for mission-critical parts in aerospace). It also requires a high degree of diligence from our cork suppliers, not all of whom were happy about the extra work required. We have aggressively asked our customers, distributors, etc. to let us know if they get a corked bottle of Talisman pinot noir, which we will happily replace. We receive less than one complaint per year about corked bottles. The same is true for the clients for whom I make wine. The bottom line is that cork taint can be more-or-less eliminated, but not many wineries take the extra steps necessary to eliminate cork problems. The most common problem I have seen with screw caps is the result of a case being dropped or set down hard and the screw cap being damaged by the impact.

  • David Rossi

    I’ve also had the advantage of tasting the same wine with various closures(screwcap, agglomerated cork, synthetics, natural cork). The conclusion for us is cork is the best closure when it is not tainted. It isn’t even close.

    However when cork is tainted it is really bad. So trade off(as we see it) is consistency vs. the highest potential. We have decided to work with our natural cork supplier to get consistency up, but I understand why others want to avoid the risk of a bad cork.

    We will continue to trial various closures because we are not Zealots either way.

  • We have been so embarrassed at wines spoiled by horrible corks. Maybe it is an Australian problem, being at the end of the world, cork producers supply their s..t to us. We spent a lot of time and effort, and used serious wine chemistry, learning how to apply screw-caps in different varieties without creating excessive reductive characters. Show results and market acceptance have endorsed our efforts. It has been a journey, but anybody who thinks that they can do better with cork is simply deluding themselves. As for the controlled oxygen ingress capsules: maybe they add something, but if you know your vineyard and fermenter performance, measure total package oxygen, and prepare your wine for bottling effectively, it is likely that they do not make a decisive difference.

    In fact, I have been intrigued by the mixture of objective experience and superstition in the previous responses. Has nobody here thought through the issues from first principles. i.e. What is the wine chemistry going on here and how do I understand it and influence in a desirable direction? Some, but not all, reads like the “I will not vaccinate my children” debate. Totally emotive, aiming to discredit anything that disturbs a world view frighteningly insulated from any test of reality. Pity that an otherwise intelligent blog gives them space.

  • Bill Bryce

    When Plumjack came out with half of their 1998 Reserve Cabs bottled in screwcap, I purchased a case of each. In 2010 I decided to open each to find out how well they held up. Now I am a die hard cork person, but I was very surprised that the screwcap version was acting like a very young wine while the cork version was statring to show its age. Both wines were kept in 58 degrees at 72 humidity. Unfortunately I am still a die hard for corks, but the screwcap is slowly creeping its way into my cellar.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Very interesting story. You make a very good point about serious issues associated with reduction and agebility under screw caps, along with the unpleasant inconsistencies of cork. And while it makes sense that those are the focus of your article, as those are the closures associated with the wines that you tasted, there’s another big player in the closure category and in this discussion – Nomacorc. As a company that closes 8 out of the top 10 brands in the U.S. (and nearly half of the top 500 SKUs) by volume, it is evident that winemakers trust Nomacorc for its technical capabilities. And our ultra-premium Select Series engineered closures offer four different oxygen rates to allow winemakers the choice to precisely control the evolution of his/her own wine. With natural cork there is not a consistent option-not to mention the risk of cork taint. With screw caps that offer permeable liners, research shows that these caps either allow too little oxygen or too much oxygen into the wine based on the recommended range that varieties need. At the end of the day, it should be a winemaker’s choice to determine how and when the wine shows. And Nomacorc closures are tools that allow evolution, like cork – but consistently.

    Katie Myers, Nomacorc

  • Gordon Richens

    “Totally emotive, aiming to discredit anything that disturbs a world view frighteningly insulated from any test of reality. Pity that an otherwise intelligent blog gives them space.”

    ZZZZZ.

  • I have been experimenting with different types of closures for many decades. I am often disapointed by so-called careful tests of crew caps versus corks and other closures, which are conducted in a very unscientific way. Many variables aren’t controlled for, and often just one or two bottles are used for the test. Furthermore, cork does flavor a wine even when it doesn’t spoil it, and people who are accostumed to cork flavors in wines may prefer them to the (to me) cleaner, fresher taste of wines sealed with screw caps. My tests have generally been done with the same wines flowing through the same bottling equipment, but ending in different bottles with different closures. Since I use a six spout hand bottle filler, it is simple to put different types of bottles at different spouts. Throughout a bottling sessions I have mixed bottles and closures, with the result that some single cases can have more that one closure-type bottle. Thus the starting wine and aging conditions for the different-closure bottles are the same. My longest running test (over 20 years) is comparing crown caps to corks, and the crown caps win hands down. It isn’t even close.

    Over the past six years I have been trying saran, saran-tin, and Vinperfect screwcaps along with the best corks I could find. So far in all blind tastes all tasters have clearly preferred the screw caps over the corks for reds (mainly Pinot Noir) and whites. Our Pinot that has been in the bottle for four years already shows some variation from bottle to bottle for the bottles with corks, and we can’t detect any difference between saran-tin and saranex yet. Clearly we need many more years before we can evaluate the long-term aging potential of the different closures, but so far the screw caps are clearly to be preferred, and the trend we see for the cork-finished wines aren’t promising for long term. In five years we have only had one bottle with a screw cap returned for suspected closure problems (we didn’t detect any), though we have encoutered many corked wines. We have not encoutered any reduction problems. We have not encoutered a sinle customer who balks at a $45 bottle of wine because of a screw cap, but rather our customers are enthusiastic about our use of screw caps. We estimate we save about $6 a case using screwcaps, but wouldn’t hesitate to use corks if we thought they were better. I recently opened a 1999 Musigny that was corked and was undrinkable. I fully believe if it had a screw cap it would have been wonderful.

    Joe Miller

  • Daniel

    Jamie’s right, different applications for different wines.
    As a winemaker, this statement ” Aside from the issue of reduction, which is too big to tackle here” acknowledges but bypasses the heart of the issue/decision for me. I’ll take the potential for mild oxidation, more bottle variation, early maturity and yes even a percentage loss over screw cap reduction of an entire bottling any day. But that’s for my wines. Sure, there’s copper but as (I believe) John Gilman so succinctly put it, that’s making the foot fit the shoe. Jamie’s point about the fine wine dollar being spent on these minor degrees of subtlety is also spot on. As any winemaker reaching for the highest possible quality can attest, getting to 95% is one thing, getting that final 5% is just as much (if not more) work and comes as the sum of many many details.

  • Andy

    Have you tried any quality wines from the early 90:s with screwcap recently?

    I would love to see how they develop during 20 years or so.

    Propably a big difference between a good cork and a screwcap.

  • John Weaver

    Last night we had a lovely tasting, Chateauneuf du Pape and South African versions, 4 wines. This was followed by the component varieties bottled as single versions, 5 wines. In this second flight one of the bottles was corked – so sad. This was a wine from one of SA’s leading (and more expensive) winemakers who resolutely refuses to use screwcaps. How I wish that all of the wines last night had been under screwcap. Now we have the schlep of having to return the bottle to get a replacement.

  • Charlie Jones

    Interesting reading about the debate between corks v.s. screw caps. Personally I prefer corks but for a more sentimental reason. I make wine at home and have the ability to cork my own bottles. I was wondering if I could perform my own test by buying several different screw cap wines. Having 2 of the same wines and rebottling one and adding a cork. This is not pure science as I know I would be adding oxygen in the process and my results would be flawed but do you think if held long enough you would find a noticeable difference.

  • I own a small winery in the Adelaide Hills called Tilbrook Estate. We started making wine in 2002 and the first couple of vintages was sealed all under natural cork. I started to see some musty characters in some reds so decided to switch to screwcaps for most of my wines. Then I read an article (I think by you, Jamie Goode)in Harpers which looked at the Diam cork. It sang its praises so I tried it and liked it. From then till 2010 vintage I used the Diam cork for my Reserve wines and screwcap for my non reserve. Then in 2010 I was getting asked all the time why I still used cork so I decided to give it the flick. But then I thought why should I if the wine tastes better. So I decided to trial it. We do all our own bottling and I have a corker on one side of the bottle filler and a capper on the other. So in 2010 I did 10% under Diam and the rest under screwcap. I did this for my Reserve Chard, Pinot Noir, Reserve Syrah/ Shiraz and Reserve Botrytis. From this first trial (after a couple of years in bottle) I decided to do the Chardy under screwcap from there on as well as the Botrytis. Both were fresher and better defined. It was 50/50 on the PN and most people preferred the Syrah under Diam. So I decided to repeat the trial in 2012 and then again in 2013. From this I decided to do the non reserve PN under screwcap but if we ever made a Reserve and it had enough structure we would do this under Diam. I now do 33% of the Syrah under Diam and the rest under screwcap.In actual fact everyone who comes in the cellar door or tastes the two wines at a trade tasting prefers the one under Diam. It is fuller, richer and rounder than the one under screwcap. No one guesses it is the exact same wine just with a different closure. As a result we are able to charge $10 a bottle more for it. I would be interested to see, however, what the two wines are like in 10 years time. I wonder if the Diam will start to look like an old claret, whilst the one under screwcap will still be more concise but nonetheless matured? I guess, as Jamie says it depends on what you want your 10 year old wine to look like!

  • Linda

    Here’s ironic, I LOVE Penfolds and wanted to share that love with friends and family two weeks ago. My corked bottle, was indeed corked. UGH! Great article though. Thanks!

  • Very good blog that describe the difference between the cork sealing and screwcap. It was very interesting to know that screcap sealing of wine bottle taste much fine when compare to the cork sealing. Thanks for sharing such an useful information in the post.

    Thanks and Regards
    http://www.kapilpackaging,com/

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