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31 May 2012

Avignonesi Considers the Cork vs. Screw Cap Debate

Avignonesi Considers the Cork vs. Screw Cap Debate

If you had to be a bottle of wine, what would you choose to be: white, red or rose? Let’s take this game one step further. What kind of closure would your alter-ego bottle have: a traditional cork made from trees that take 25 years to grow? A wishy-washy, synthetic cork? Or would you opt for cutting edge, practical screw caps? The inventor of the screw caps, a certain gentleman named Stelvin, might not enjoy the same fame as Steve Jobs, but his invention did revolutionize the wine bottling industry. One key factoid: in the past ten years the number of aluminum screw caps used has grown from 3 million to 3.5 billion.


This decision to move towards the more practical, though somewhat less romantic closure, has been shaped by fear of cork taint, 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA) and the awareness that the aging process of wine takes place independently of the presence of cork. In other words, all that talk about corks allowing wine to age correctly could be fluff. Basically, if oxygen can get in, the cork is not doing its job properly. For these reasons, combined with the facts that it is increasingly difficult to get good quality corks due to the notable increase in the amount of wine being produced and that cork trees simply don’t grow fast enough, more winemakers around the world are turning to screw caps.


Currently, Avignonesi uses screw caps on only one of our wines, Vignola, a vibrant Sauvignon Blanc.  However, we will be using screw caps on next year’s production of the 2011 vintage of Cantaloro, a Cabernet-Merlot-Sangiovese blend. The two wines, known as our Tuscan Duo, are both eminently drinkable, young wines and the choice to use screw caps on them reflects their easygoing qualities.


A short conversation with owner Virginie Saverys, export manager Brett Fleming and winemaker Ashleigh Seymour confirmed that Avignonesi stands by screw caps. During a course at ISVV in Bordeaux, Virginie tasted two ten-year old Burgundy Chardonnays from the same vintage. “The wine closed with screw cap was definitely in better shape than the one closed with cork. It was fresher, more vibrant, had kept more of its fruit, and had a longer aging potential than the bottle closed with cork.”  While Virginie also realizes that the ceremonial pop of the cork is a quintessential part of the experience especially for high-end wines, she is “convinced that for the quality of the wine and its aging capacity, the screw cap is better.”


Both Ashleigh and Brett agree with Virginie wholeheartedly. Brett pointed out that it is not just a question of New World versus Old World wines: “Domaine Laroche in Chablis have been bottling Chablis, Premier crus and Grand Crus in screw caps since 2001.” He also told an interesting story of his experience as an International Wine Judge assessing inventory from many companies in Australia dating back to the late 1800's. His role was to ascertain all the wines for faults based on their closures. “The wines from 1880-1935 under cork were pretty much all undrinkable. However, the wines from 1935-1950, which were sealed with screw caps, crown seals and basically anything the vintners could get their hands on - since cork supply in Australia was interrupted due to the war in Europe - were fine: not one was faulty due to the closure. Then, the post-1950 wines under cork went back to showing a variety of faulty expressions due to cork.”


The longevity of a wine under screw cap and how this closure helps fend off taint will, over time, probably be the main factors that lead to further acceptance of screw tops around the world. Brett points out that preferences for one or the other kind of seal are at present determined by both generation and culture. Young drinkers in the USA appreciate screw caps for all wines, while older generations often opt for corks. Chinese consumers tend to prefer corked wines while, generally speaking, other Asian countries are more amenable to screw caps.


Ashleigh pointed out that screw caps are preferable to corks also because, in a roundabout way, they minimize the risk of “reduction,” the industry name for the rotten egg odor that all wines are subject to and which is created by the presence of hydrogen sulfide. A winemaker using cork doesn’t need to worry as much about reduction because cork often absorbs these odors. There is no absorption with the screwcap, however. So the winemaker using screw caps needs to be especially vigilant in the cellar. In Ashleigh’s opinion, the best thing to do is create as excellent a wine as possible and then seal it with a screw cap. Jancis Robinson agrees; “Given that screwcaps enable the wine to be expressed in its truest form, there is no hiding of any winemaking faults so the issue surrounding hydrogen sulfide is all about winemaking and not the closure.”


The benefits of the screw cap on both restaurants and individuals are obvious: the wines stay fresher and healthier. Ashleigh was also keen to point out that psychological studies show that it is “easier” for people to close a screw cap than to re-cork a bottle! 


For die-hard traditionalists, rest assured: we won’t be putting screw caps on many of our wines today as DOCG rules simply don’t allow it.  Wouldn't it be interesting to find out if this particular rule was written intentionally or if it is a holdover from an era when people didn’t even consider screw caps a viable option… 


We could, however, use screw caps on our Avignonesi Rosso di Montepulciano. Wouldn’t you enjoy knowing that your wine is as it should be? Or would you miss the corkscrew opening ceremony? Do let us know your thoughts on the matter by writing to me at

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