Cork or Screw: The Best Way to Store Wine
What is Cork?
Cork is harvested from Quercus suber, the Cork Oak tree, found only in southwest Europe and northwest Africa. The material is composed of suberin, a hydrophobic (water-repelling) substance that gives it its buoyant and elastic characteristics. It is also fire retardant, impermeable and 100% natural, making it as versatile as it is sustainable and one of the easiest products to recycle.
Almost 50% of the cork harvested annually is produced in Portugal, with the rest coming from Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy and France. Cork oak trees live for about 200 years and are harvested from the age of 25 in 9-year cycles by stripping the bark from their trunks. The older the tree, the better quality cork it yields.
Screw Caps for Wine? Why Not?
When it comes to wine, and particularly wine storage, it seems there are two opposing camps: those who think screw caps are perfectly adequate, and those who think the only way to store wine correctly is with a traditional cork. Is it just a question of snobbery, or is there another reason why connoisseurs go completely crazy for corks?
Whatever method you prefer, there are only three ways to seal a bottle of wine:
- Traditional cork – made from the bark of cork oak trees found in southwest Europe and northwest Africa
- Synthetic cork – made from synthetic materials such as plastic in the shape of traditional corks
- Screw caps – made from metal with the addition of softer material to form an airtight seal against the mouth of the bottle
To Cork or Not to Cork
Cork has its pros and cons. Most critics believe that cork is essential to allow the more expensive wines to age properly, letting in just the right amount of oxygen. On the other hand, traditional corks have in the past become tainted from the compound trichloroanisole (TCA), ruining the contents in the process.
The sound of a cork popping is immensely satisfying, adding a sense of sophistication, luxury and unbounded pleasure to any celebration, but that pleasure can be short-lived if the wine itself has gone off. Synthetic corks eliminate some of these issues but have proven ineffective at keeping oxidation at bay, which naturally limits a wine’s shelf life.
Screw caps are being used more and more frequently in the 21st century for a number of good reasons:
- They’re cheaper to manufacture and fit than traditional cork
- They’re the perfect solution for storing young or less expensive wine
- They’re easy and convenient for keeping bottled wine sealed during meals or over a short period of time, without the hassle of trying to squeeze a cork back inside
- They’re able to form a tighter seal than cork which ensures a better flavor for all but the most expensive varieties of wine
The Making of Cork
Is Your Wine Corked?
Corked wine gives off a musty smell and has a moldy taste of old shoes. That’s not what you want when you read about the fruity notes and rich, deep aromas on the back of the bottle. Instead of fragrant plum with a delicious hint of blackberries and cinnamon, you end up with a cross between stale bread and week-old socks in desperate need of a wash.
Of course, one of the problems is that the average person can only tell if a particular wine is corked when it’s too late – by opening the bottle and taking a sip. Thanks to their ability to form an airtight seal, screw caps do away with this potential problem entirely.
Cork Oak Tree Quercus Suber
Cork Grows on Trees
Most of the world’s cork is harvested in Portugal. Visitors to Funchal, the capital of Madeira, will struggle to buy a bottle of wine without a cork in it. The reason for this is simple: bottling firms are doing their bit to support local cork makers and contribute to the country’s economic stability. A stroll along the promenade towards the marina in Funchal serves to highlight the importance of the cork industry to this Portuguese archipelago, where concrete cork-shaped breakwaters can be seen piled high in strategic positions.
The Portuguese deserve credit for keeping the tradition alive, but their cork-only attitude can make things tricky when you’re on holiday. After all, who thinks to pack a corkscrew in among their t-shirts and swimming trunks? You could probably borrow a corkscrew from the hotel you’re staying in, or if there’s a wine shop across the road you could buy a bottle and have it uncorked before leaving.
A Tribute to Cork
Put a Cork in it
Cork stoppers, particularly for wine bottles, account for about 60% of all cork production. Unlike the alternatives, cork is a natural substance which poses no threat to the environment. While screw caps can be recycled, synthetic corks cannot. Cork can also be used to create a wide variety of consumer goods including:
- Fastenings for woodwind instruments
- Conductor’s batons
- Watch straps and bracelets
- Badminton shuttlecocks
- Belts and handbags
- The cores of baseballs and cricket balls
- Automotive interiors
- Heat shields
- Bulletin boards
- Soundproofing panels
- Paper pickup mechanisms in computer printers
- Bricks for outer walls of houses
- Floor and wall tiles
It seems cork has an almost endless number of uses, including some you might never consider. For instance, in 2008 the Portuguese national postal service issued the world's first postage stamp... made from cork.
Unlike the alternatives, cork is a natural substance which poses no threat to the environment.
The Future of the Cork
Cork is a buoyant material that makes it ideal for fishing floats, buoys and handles for fishing rods. It is a valuable and versatile product that can be turned into different shapes and sizes to suit a wide range of purposes; but are its wine-sealing days numbered? Apparently not…
It was just a matter of time before someone would come up with the idea of combining the two: the convenience of a screw cap and the excitement and luxury of a cork. Bottling firm O-I and cork producer Amorim have joined forces to create a handscrew cork, known as the Helix.
The Helix 'cork with a twist' serves the same function as a screw cap, able to be screwed back firmly into a partly-empty bottle by hand. This will give cork lovers the satisfaction they seek, while at the same time making it easy for anyone to open and reseal a bottle without the need for additional paraphernalia.
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