To Cork or Not to Cork: Part 2
Who doesn’t love the pop of a cork at the beginning of a dinner with friends or a New Years Eve celebration? The history of cork usage for wine bottles goes back millenia. The natural cork is punched from the bark of the Quercus Suber or cork oak tree, grown primarily in Portugal (50%) and Spain (30%). The theatrics behind opening a bottle of wine is the subject of extensive study for master sommelier training but it can also be a source of anxiety for the casual wine drinker. There are so many choices of openers, from simple corkscrews (which cost a few dollars) to expensive tabletop cork pullers (which go for upwards of $200). Foolproof? Hardly, especially if you get a bad cork.
If you read my blog on wine faults, you know about TCA (aka cork taint), which is caused by a fungus that grows naturally in cork and can impart a musty dank odor to wine. Left unchecked this fungus can degrade a cork causing it to disintegrate, allowing too much oxygen in the wine and making it impossible to remove the cork intact. This sort of issue is not your fault even if you are a professional; get one of these tainted corks and return the bottle to the wine store. Trust me: you don’t want to drink that wine. I have read, however, that decanting and aerating the wine can dissipate the odor (if you lost the receipt or you purchased the bottle long ago). The fungus itself is not harmful. But if the wine is also very oxidized aka brownish in color, you could be drinking mostly vinegar (acetic acid), which you can’t reverse. Do what I did and make vinegar out of it. Use it in your salad dressing rather than pour it down the drain.
Several options exist for winemakers to prevent or eliminate this problem inherent in natural corks. The key is to allow a little oxygen in the bottle, but not too much. Natural corks do breathe and allow this slow oxygenation necessary to properly degrade the tannins in an ageable wine to result in a better tasting wine after several years (or decades for a rare few wine types). Natural cork is also renewable, natural and compostable.
Here are a few alternatives to natural cork:
- Synthetic Cork: Not natural, less expensive, and useful for wines not destined to age more than 2 years. They have the same pop as natural corks and are extracted using the same corkscrews as natural cork.
- Screw Caps: Initially disdained as used only in cheap wines, these have gained status as breathable, reliable and easy to open. More and more wineries are adapting screw caps to decrease issues with cork taint and consumers are less likely to judge a wine poorly that uses a screw cap nowadays. Newer technology in screw caps can also allow degrees of breathability, rivaling natural corks for aging potential.
- Crown Caps: These are the same ones used for soda and beer bottles, and also in the first fermentation step of all methode champenoise sparkling wines, including French Champagne. Tradition dictates once a sparkling wine undergoes disgorgement and second fermentation, the crown cap is replaced with the mushroom shaped natural “champagne” cork. Sparkling winemakers are beginning to use the crown cap at the end as well and foregoing the natural cork altogether. Basic bottle opener needed, no pop though, but unlikely to put an eye out in the hands of a novice.
- Glass Stoppers: I first encountered this type at Vidon Vineyard in Newberg, OR last year. The stopper is removable with no equipment, just your thumb, and is easy to reseal again. The gasket allows breathing just like natural cork, and the bottle can be reused for other purposes such as olive oil or vinegar. This top is as recyclable as the bottle, though overall a more expensive choice for the winery. On the plus side, it presents no chance of cork taint and is an elegant option.
Don’t prejudge a wine based on its cork or lack thereof
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are faced with a bad cork/bad bottle.
Don’t toss your natural corks in the trash: compost, recycle, make a bulletin board, add to your potted plants to improve drainage (and make them lighter to carry!)
Consider all alternatives above if you want to avoid cork taint risk.
Find and support winemakers who consider corks along with other environmental concerns to make their vineyards more sustainable and eco-conscious.
Next week: What about the 2020 vintage and the results of the fires on Willamette Valley wines?