Let me say first of all, that strictly as a wine drinker and aficionado and without regard to the technical debates, I love the romance and ambiance of “uncorking” a bottle of my favorite wine with a conventional cork. It may date back to my first days as a sommelier, serving restaurant customers and my efforts to make having wine with food a special event. It may relate to the special pleasure in successfully opening a bottle and pouring that first taste. I just enjoy the ritual afforded with opening a bottle sealed with the conventional cork stopper. In much the same manner, I enjoy the ritual of formally decanting a bottle in order to aerate the wine more than I do using a good mechanical aerator.
I don’t find fault with the usage of screw caps on some wines (in fact, at times, I relish the comfort and convenience). I also appreciate the convenience and the ease of a good aerator. It’s just that, for me, the traditional rituals do bring something pleasurable and sensual to the occasion. I can't help it, I'm a hopeless old romantic!
Having said that, let’s share some background on the use of traditional wine corks. Wine corks work well because of a combination of some key properties: impermeability, elasticity and semi-porosity. Being nearly impermeable allows for secure containment of the precious liquid. Elasticity allows for secure fitting into a glass bottle and also allows for relative ease in removal (that might be debated by some wine drinkers!). Cork’s ability to contain liquid while allowing the bottle to “breathe” or exchange air with the outside allows for controlled ageing and development of the wine inside (desirable in many but not all wines). Despite these properties, cork was not the stopper of choice for wine for hundreds of years. It’s wide commercial usage didn't begin until the late 1600’s in France. It probably first began with Champagne, then with still wines. Up to that point, oil soaked rags or hemp wrapped wood bungs soaked in paraffin were more commonly utilized in securing wine. The Greeks sealed their early earthenware amphora with pine resin (today’s Greek Retsina pays homage to the flavoring that process imparted to early Greek wines).
While it functions beautifully, the usage of cork does present some logistical challenges: Cork comes from the peeled bark of the tree which must attain about twenty-five years of age before it can be first harvested. The first and often the second harvest are usually not of the quality required for wine corks and these are generally utilized in construction as insulation or soundproofing. Nine years transpires between each harvest from an individual tree and then the cork is allowed to oxidize for several months before being boiled twice over several weeks to kill organisms, dissolve tannins and generally prepare the material for punching out the subsequent wine cork. Waste material is gathered and used in making composite pressed corks. In short, there's a lot of time and labor involved in producing that tiny little old wine cork that seals your bottle of wine.
The Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the world's cork production. An additional 10 to 16 percent comes from Italy, Morocco and southern France. This narrow geography of this production (unsuccessful attempts to introduce cork trees to Australia probably account for the overwhelming popularity of screw caps from that country’s wineries) have combined with the rapid expansion of wineries and wine production to create a challenge. Demand is quickly outstripping availability and this has resulted in a steadily increasing usage and spread of alternative closures.
These are among the many economic reasons for the diversity of closures on your favorite bottle of wine. Don’t assume that it’s an inferior wine just because it has a synthetic or screw cap enclosure. However, if you’re planning to cellar and age a particular wine for much later use, that bottle should probably be one that has a conventional wine cork closure for best results. (Some winemakers are currently attempting long term taste testing on aging wine under different closures).
Lack of a cork enclosure won’t deter The Wine Guy from trying and enjoying a bottle of wine but I’ll certainly reach for a traditionally corked bottle of wine when I want the occasion to be full of the romance and ambiance I associate with serving wine. I also have gone “green” by saving and collecting my used wine corks for recycling. Many retailers will now accept wine corks for recycling (often into other cork products but that keeps more of the current year’s harvest available for wine corks). Check for the places that accept corks in your area (Trader Joe’s is among the nationwide chains currently accepting wine corks for recycling). I also recommend the saving of wine corks as an easy remembrance of your favorite wines. The Wine Guy also keeps a collection jar close by the location of my car keys in the kitchen. With the winery and sometimes the wine name stamped on the cork, it’s easy to drop a cork into my pocket as a quick reminder of the wine I want to look for or repurchase on my next wine-buying trip.
As always, look forward to your next bottle of wine (with or without the traditional cork stopper). It’s always an adventure and event worth savoring. Salute!