Bottle closures

Cork or twist-off closure? The wine world debate continues unabated.

Cork closures paired with the ability of glass blowers to make consistent bottles were great technological leaps that transformed wine in the 1700s. When Louis Pasteur patented a process to “fight the diseases of wine” in 1865—his “pasteurization” process later was applied to beer and milk—the wine we know and love today was born. Wine was heated to kill micro-organisms, placed in consistently created bottles, sealed with a cork from the bark of the cork oak tree.

And so things popped along. Then came explosion of wine consumption in the late 20th century, and not just any consumption. Wine went all over the world. Wine reached its highest quality in history. Day workers in France and Italy demanded more than “vin de table” poured from a cask. Bottle demand increased. No problem. Cork demand increased. Problem.

Portugal supplies half of the world’s wine corks, Spain one-third. It takes a cork oak tree (Quercus suber) 25 years of growth before you can harvest its bark every nine years for the next 300 years, so this is not a situation where you can flip a switch to increase production.

The demand tsunami resulted in quality control issues, and corks tainted with 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) and other adulterants increased in frequency. “Corked wine”—identified by a moldy, musty, wet cardboard smell—significantly increased. Wine panic.

At the same time, increased demand for lower-priced wines—$8 to $20—soared. Since a cork can cost 50 cents to more than a dollar, and wine drinkers around the world were up in arms about cork-tainted wine, the frantic search for a less expensive, more dependable alternative was on.

In stepped the Stelvin screw cap and a host of other solutions. And thus began the controversies and conundrums still roiling. Repeated studies show people value wine sealed with a cork more than other methods, and no one knows if a screw cap wine can age for decades as well as a cork-closed bottle, but you are a rare wine drinker indeed if you have not twisted rather than pulled to open a bottle recently.

Next week, putting a new twist on closures while Portugal and Spain clean up their cork act.

Last round: Some wine drinkers cause happiness wherever they go. Others cause happiness whenever they go.