To Screwcap or Not to Screwcap?



My wife and I had to wonder why you, who leverages science so well in your wines, opt for corks instead of screwcaps. I'm sorry to say we wondered this because we got a corked bottle of Faux Chablis, but it did lead to an interesting topic.Hope you're well,

Dear Derrick:

Bummer! I owe you a bottle.

This is actually only the third instance of a corky bottle in the 15 year history of WineSmith. Wouldn’t you know it goes to a writer! I buy all my corks from Lafitte Cork and Capsule in Napa. In 1993 I did a consulting job for them to set up their QC lab and warehouse system. We came up with a system that includes dry storage (no wood pallets) and a rehydration room kept sterile with UV-generated ozone. There is also a very rigorous sensory testing system. It’s worked very well, so my concerns about corkiness are much less than the norm.

Five years ago when we started bottling Faux Chablis, there was no discourse supporting screwcaps. As a technology target, I thought it was one conversation too many. I was already beating the drum for structure, minerality, living soil, and alcohol adjustment, so I elected to go with a traditional (and pretty reliable) closure.

Another reason I continue to do so is the problem with “stale goods.” When you make chardonnay in this style, the tannins, reductiveness from yeast lees stirring, and mineral energy all contribute to its anti-oxidative strength. In short, it takes four years in the bottle to open up, which is why I’m selling the 2002 now. Unless I tell people one by one, they think there is something wrong with the wine or it would have sold out years ago.

So we need the slow oxygen passage a cork provides, or the problem would be worse. I’d be waiting maybe six or seven years to release.

But I have to admit that an important aspect of the packaging choice is to project a very traditional feel for the Eurocentric palates who enjoy this wine, including the old style bottle and wax dip. This is high end stuff.

I feel I’ve done more than my part to further enlightenment, and I have no love of technology per se. For every wine we need to give fresh consideration to all aspects of what’s best for the wine and the market. Faux Chablis is an interesting case in point. If I start getting flack for using corks, perhaps that balance will shift for this wine.

As another example of this process, of course we have always used screwcaps for CheapSkate wines. We have to -- it's part of our image!






I believe that there is sound scientific basis for choosing natural cork over synthetic closures - particularly for wines that are built to last. If I recall correctly, the permeability properties of natural cork are felt to be optimal for long-term aging and this benefit outweighs the risk of TCA taint. So much of the things you mention appear to be supported by scientificic data.

Synthetic closures - I don't recall if it is extruded, molded or both - actually "breathe" more and facilitate more rapid oxidation and shorten lifespan. Conversely, screwcaps, I have heard/read form too tight of a seal leading to greater incidence of reductive faults.

Since TCA is formed when chlorinated cleaning/disinfectin agents interact wih molds infecting the oak bark, the next lucrative leap in wine will be to either create a cleaning/disinfecting agent which will not lead to the formation of TCA or an additional 'rinsing' solution which will neutralize and/or remove any TCA in the cork.