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Written by Nikitas Magel
Screwcaps and Synthetic Corks
More and more, we're seeing wine bottles sealed with closures other than the natural cork we've come to associate with them. There are several reasons for this, depending primarily on the type of closure and style of wine. One type of cork alternative is known as the synthetic "cork" — a piece of rubbery plastic that stoppers a bottle much in the way that a traditional cork does, and must also be removed using a corkscrew. This type of closure is usually used in lower-priced wines meant to be drunk soon, since over a long period of time the synthetic material fails to ward off oxidation nearly as long as natural cork and can actually impart off-flavors to a wine. The main reason for using synthetic corks for cheaper wines is that they're a lot less expensive than natural cork; producers of such wines are wanting to cut productions costs as much as possible. The wine inside a bottle with this sort of closure isn't necessarily low quality, but simply one that's meant to be drunk soon after release (such as most whites and lighter reds).
That of course means you'll never find such a cork on a higher quality wine that's crafted to keep for some time after release (such as heavier whites and reds aged in oak barrels).
Another type of cork alternative is known as the Stelvin closure — the "new" screwcap that has shown definite promise for wines of good quality meant to be drunk soon (such as lighter whites) and showing increasing evidence of being a viable closure for wines of good quality meant to be aged (such as heavier reds). The main reason for using Stelvin screwcaps is that they eliminate the danger of cork taint that completely ruins an otherwise mid-to-high quality wine. Cork taint is called by a chemical called TCA that develops as the result of a reaction between the bleach used to clean and sterilize cork and a mold dormant in the crevices of a cork. A wine becomes "corked" when it has been affected by this taint, a taste and odor akin to musty, wet cardboard with an odd chemical quality. This sort of thing has been happening for probably as long as industrial harvesting and processing of cork has been going on, and results in tainting about 2-5% of wines. The Stelvin closure was developed specifically as a way to seal wine and avoid the danger of this taint, while at the same time protecting a natural resource. As a sidenote, I feel that both the Stelvin manufacturers and the cork industry are distorting true facts in an effort to boost their own business and tout their respective products. Until results are released on a large scale, — involving sound, empirical research — there's no way to accurately compare the long-term effects of using each type of closure. But one thing's for sure: people who spend a great deal of money on wines are sick of coming across bottles that are ruined by cork taint.
A short video by Wine Spectator covers another perspective: