If I could give you one piece of advice for 2014 it would be this: do not fear the screw-cap.
It’s an overused cliché in my line of work: the one involving the waiter who screws open a bottle of wine instead of pulling its cork out but, on the whole, it's rather effective. It is understandable though: the extravagant tugging of resilient Portuguese bark out of a brittle, glass bottle is a spectacle at the best of times. The turning of a piece of steel with its almost inaudible crunch is indeed far less rewarding and it’s true of wine that a large part of it is show. A pretty label with big long (preferably French) words and a man in a bow-tie and apron is just the start of it: the whole marketing behind the stuff, the ‘elite’ ambient every bottle that costs more than a fiver carries with it is all show really. The same can be said for every luxury grocery though: lobster isn't particularly attractive without the bright red claws, Oysters only work with their shells and mineral water out of a plastic bottle doesn't really work in gastronomy.
But what if I told you that the cork was not only show but, in some cases, actually not a very good thing to use in the closure of a wine bottle? You’d disagree and say something along the lines of ‘Cork has been used for many a century before screw-tops even existed, everyone knows the best wines are stopped with real cork’. Let’s put it this way: a few centuries ago cleaning your teeth was a rare and (almost) unthinkable exercise and yet we don’t get all sentimental about plaque and eroding molars so why should we with decaying wine?
Admittedly, there are some fantastic advantages of cork, especially with red wine – it’s hard to think of a better solution to closing a wine bottle, apart from the screw-top that is.
You see, whilst the cork isn't necessarily always a bad thing, it does bring with it a number of issues, one of which is the precise reason cork is used in the first place: oxidation. I don’t need to go into the physics of cork to explain that it is full of lots of little pores all of which allow a tiny amount of oxygen into the wine (on purpose). Oxidation of wine leads to it developing character over the years, parting with sharp acids and bitter tannin but it is, just like the cells of your body are doing to you, slowly killing the wine as well. If a bottle happens to have received a poor piece of cork (or bad cork is used in the first place to satisfy the waiter cork-pulling image), it will oxidise too quickly, leading to a flat wine within only a few days: by the time the liquid reaches your tongue, it’s likely to taste very foul indeed. You see these old wine bottles from the 1800s which fetch thousands of pounds per bottle, this is only because they're rare - the price doesn't reflect the quality and, whilst some might be drinkable, most probably aren't.
Cork is also pretty prone to reaction and adjusting the flavour of a wine without involving oxygen: how many old whites taste woody, why do some Champagnes taste a little too vegetative? Yep, that’s the cork messing about with the flavour and reacting with the acid in the wine. On top of that, corks age and, should they come into contact with moisture, they rot and mould. Cork is also only really any good if it is contact with the wine itself: i.e. the bottle is laying down. If the cork is touching air only on both ends, it’ll eventually dry out leading to its and, eventually, the wine’s decay – if it then comes into contact with the wine, it might even break up – this can happen even to the best-quality cork.
Some suggest that the plastic cork is the next best thing but the point in pulling something out of the bottle with a tool for old-time’s and tradition’s sake seems to me a little pointless. Furthermore, those odd pieces of plastic don’t really scream sophistication – I think they look silly and, as experience would prove, they really are only ever found stuck in the necks of the bottles you have to bend down for in your local supermarket (the cheap stuff).
Another solution particularly popular in parts of Germany is the glass stopper which, whilst actually very effective at sealing a bottle, is unfortunately both brittle and fairly expensive in comparison to other means. Crown caps are used (particularly in the production of sparkling wine) and these are effective, again though, a feature usually associated with beer is hardly going to woo restaurant diners (although a tool is required at least).
No, the screw-top is the future and there’s no reason it shouldn't be. Those seemingly impersonal pieces of formed steel are really very good at keeping wine freshly locked-up – they’re not optimised for aging but, well, let the winery do that for you and decide how much aging is required before they bottle it – hardly any of us have proper wine cellars anyway and most of us buy our wines from brightly-lit, generously-heated supermarket where they stand for a certain period of time before we lovingly place them into our trolleys - this is likely to mean that, even in a proper cellar, quite a lot of irreversible damage has already been done.
Even some of the top wineries have been messing around with screw-tops. A Few years ago a myth spread across the wine community that Chateau Haut-Brion (a very highly-regarded Bordeaux producer) was experimenting with screw-tops. Although I doubt traditional French and Italian wineries will ever turn to Screw-caps (they rely on tradition to sell wine), its growing popularity can be seen the world over. Despite it being partly due to the new-world’s limited access to cork, the wineries there are increasingly using screw-tops because it’s the best way to seal wine and I’m not talking Echo Falls or Blossom Hill, I’m talking about prestige wineries from Stellenbosch, Barossa, Maipo, Mendoza and Marlborough - if the top guys are doing it, there's a reason for it.
The screw-top is by no means perfect but it is far more efficient at keeping wine fresh than anything else, you can see if it’s been tampered with and for those impromptu excursions in the park, at the beach, on holiday, you won’t have to remember your bow-tie wearing (preferably French)man or bottle opener.
Tradition tells you it should be cork, science combined with consumer habit point however at the screw-cap.