Step aside, cork.
If you’re a wine drinker, you’ve probably noticed that screw caps are no longer considered the closure just for cheap vino. Increasingly, bottles of very good wines are unscrewed, rather than uncorked.
Screw caps for wine bottles have been around since the late 1950s, but they were initially associated with value-oriented jugs of wine. That image started to change about a decade ago, when commercial winemakers in New Zealand and Australia started using the enclosures much more widely for all kinds of wine, including some higher-end bottles.
And according to screw cap enthusiasts, the science establishing the ability of screw caps to seal and perform well goes back to the 1980s.
So, what’s the rule of thumb when it comes to winemakers choosing screw caps in lieu of corks?
Increasingly, winemakers “prefer screw caps for white wines and reds meant to be drunk young,” says Dave McIntyre, a wine writer whose columns appear in The Washington Post.
Take, for instance, the wines from Cupcake Vineyards in Livermore, Calif. James Foster, the senior winemaker at Cupcake, says he loves screw caps for his sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.
“The screw cap keeps it [the bottle] sealed and does not allow oxygen to enter the bottle,” Foster says. And that, he explains, ensures that the wine remains crisp and well-preserved.
On the other hand, he opts for cork or synthetic cork for his more complex wines such as his chardonnay and his reds, including his cabernets and his Red Velvet, a blend of zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.
“Bigger, fuller wines benefit from a little oxygen that the cork naturally allows the wine to intake while it’s in the bottle,” says Foster. The tiny bit of air inside the bottle, Foster says, helps smooth out the tannins, which give reds their velvety mouth feel but can also create a harsher taste. The extra air oxidizes the tannins so they’re softer, making the wine “even more drinkable and approachable to our consumers,” he says.
And the other plus of screw caps? They’re easy to open. No fiddling with a church key (or corkscrew). And no broken cork bits accidentally floating in your wine.
By unscrewing, “we get to the wine 10 seconds faster,” jokes McIntyre.
Even so, resistance to screw caps remains, especially in the high-end wine world. Some winemakers in the U.S. “feel the jury is still out on aging wines under screw cap,” says McIntyre.
Another point of resistance: The screw cap upends the ritual of uncorking.
Lucas Paya, the wine director for renowned chef Jose Andre’s Think Food Group, finds great pleasure in the tableside presentation of his wines.
“It’s part of the ceremony,” Paya says as he reaches for the church key that he keeps strapped to his belt to uncork a bottle of red wine.
But as we know, the only thing in life that’s constant … is change. And as the cork seal gives way to the screw cap, “people are getting used to it,” Paya says, even if some people perceive unscrewing as a bit less elegant than uncorking.
As a sommelier, Paya says that when he’s opening a bottle of wine that’s enclosed with a screw cap in front a table of guests, he focuses their attention on other elements of the bottle, such as the label.
And, of course, what ultimately matters is the taste.