Popping the Cork on the Screwcap Debate

by Chuck Hayward

The debate over corks and wine is causing controversy once again, proving its unique ability to be an issue of contention for the foreseeable future. Much ballyhoo has been raised by the cork industry recently regarding Christian Canute, the owner of Rusden Wineryin the Barossa Valley, and his decision  to forswear screwcaps in favor of corks (despite the fact that he only used screwcaps for one of the ten wines in his portfolio and even that was only for a few vintages).

In other news, UC Davis and PlumpJack Winery recently announced the commencement of a two year study that will attempt to determine, once and for all, how different closures affect the ability of wines to age. (Read more about the study here). This research is taking place despite the fact that the Australian Wine and Research Institute (AWRI) has been involved in a similar project for more than a decade. That study, analyzing 14 different types of closures, is in the process of concluding that screwcaps are superior when compared to other types of seals. Looking at the picture above (courtesy of Old Bridge Cellars), I don’t think I would want any of the wines on the right side of the picture. And by the way, the screwcap bottles are on the left.

This is all great for science but it’s rare for consumers and those of us in the trade to experience first-hand proof that screwcaps are superior to corks for aging wine. Last year, JJ Buckley customers had a chance to determine how wines age under screwcaps at a unique tasting of pinot noirs from Mt. Difficulty  (read more about that event here), but there was no direct cork vs. screwcap showdown at that special event.

The result: a hands-down preference for the bottle under screwcap. The bottle under cork had more diffused aromas, redolent of herbs and muddled spices and a more advanced palate lacking the signature message of deep shiraz fruit. With deeper aromas and flavors filling up the darker range of the fruit spectrum, the screwcapped bottle clearly left a fresher, more youthful impression with a core of soft fruits that had matured enough to show softer textures with just a hint of secondary complexity. It was as though the wines came from two different places.
So a festive JJ Buckley gathering a few weekends ago looked like a great opportunity to pull a few bottles from my cellar that would address the issue. Out came two bottles of2002 Wolf Blass “Gold Label” Shiraz, one under cork and the other in screwcap, both stored at the same location since they were purchased. This was one of only five Australian wines exported to America where one vintage was sold in both screwcap and cork, so this provided us with a rare opportunity to taste the wines side by side.

While this is not a scientific study and merely another in a litany of anecdotal stories regarding the virtues of screwcaps, it’s also quite evident that our simple tasting will do little to settle this robust debate. Nevertheless, it sure caused a commotion among the JJ Buckley staff. Here’s hoping that everyone seeks out the opportunity to try the same wine under different closures, it’s truly an eye-opening experience.