Wine Notes – Corks, Zorks and Boxes, Oh My
My wife and I recently planned a special night out at Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, N.H. The food is great and they have a wonderful and extensive wine list, so I checked out their offerings online before we went and decided on the wine we would order.
At the restaurant, I asked the waitress to decant the wine for us at the table. (I figured I’m paying the price so I might as well enjoy the full experience.) She brought out the bottle to confirm my selection, and then, much to my dismay, I heard click, click, click as she twisted open the Stelvin closure. Without the pop of natural cork, the romance was all but over.
I guess this is something I have to get used to. There are several new options for wine bottle closures and containers, and they are not going away.
Wine vessels have been sealed with natural cork bark since 5,000 B.C., when the ancient Greeks and Romans were using clay amphoras for storage. Wine must be stored in a container that will keep it away from oxygen, and cork bark generally makes an ideal, if not perfect, stopper. Some cork is tainted with a naturally occurring byproduct of fungi and bacteria called trichloroanisole (TCA), which can cause wine to have off-odors resembling mold or wet newspaper. This is referred to as “taint.” When taint happens, wine is said to be “corked.” That’s why a server will hand you the cork immediately after opening a bottle of wine.
Fifty years ago, 5 percent to 6 percent of wine was tainted with TCA, prompting the industry to develop alternative closures. The Stelvin closure, or screw cap, was introduced in 1959, but due to feelings similar to mine at Tuscan Kitchen, consumers typically considered wines that were sealed this way to be of inferior quality to those sealed with cork.
Despite that sentiment, winemakers in Australia and New Zealand began sealing nearly all of their premium wines with screw caps in 2001. Screw caps are generally accepted by consumers worldwide, except in the U.S. and France, where consumers still expect better wines to be sealed with natural cork. The cork industry has greatly improved the TCA problem, but today one in 100 bottles of wine still become corked.
Winemakers continue to look for a closure that is taint-free and acceptable to consumers. Some of the newer alternatives to natural cork include synthetic cork, zorks and vino seals. Synthetic cork, often made of plastic, can be very difficult to remove. Zorks offer a “peel and reseal” alternative and boast the valuable “pop” when opening. The vino seal is a glass stopper fitted with a plastic O-ring that creates a seal.
Natural cork allows an extremely slow leak of oxygen into the bottle that assists in the wine’s aging process, but most experts agree that these synthetic alternatives allow oxygen to transfer much too quickly for proper aging. Synthetic alternatives are only good for wines that are intended to be in the bottle for three to five years, so you’ll usually only see these closures on wines that are meant to be consumed while young.
Another alternative that’s becoming popular is “wine in a box.” It’s really wine in a bag, inside of a box. The Mylar bag collapses as the wine is removed via a built-in spout, so oxygen doesn’t come in contact with the wine. (Now, if we could get “wine to go” in single serving juice pouches, that would be an innovation.) Meanwhile, I still say go for the cork unless you’re in Oz.