Monday, July 7, 2008

Screwcaps are best: Decanter verdict

It's official: screwcap is the best closure for the vast majority of wines, both red and white.

This is the opinion of Decanter magazine's most senior contributors, from Steven Spurrier to Linda Murphy in California and Huon Hooke in Australia, tastings director Christelle Guibert and restaurant critic Brian St Pierre.

In an article entitled '50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps' in the August issue of the magazine, our wine experts are unequivocal.

'Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or cork, I'd choose the screwcap every time,' Sunday Times wine writer Joanna Simon writes.

And her sentiments are echoed by Spurrier – 'the Stelvin is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime'; Hooke – 'for delicate young white wines…the screwcap is the best closure we have'; Charles Metcalfe – 'in short, they deliver your wine from the bottle in the state that the producer intended.'

Each critic lists their top five wines under screwcap – and they are by no means all white.

Spurrier's list includes a Marchand-Burch Pinot Noir from Western Australia, Murphy the Rhone blend Bonny Doon Cigare Volant Red, Guibert the Summerhouse 2005 Pinot from Marlborough and a south of France Carignan, while Anthony Rose chose the St Hallett Gamekeeper's Reserve Shiraz-Grenache from Barossa.

Rose, wine critic for the Independent newspaper as well as a veteran Decanter contributor is one of the most outspoken exponents of screwcap: 'the time for alternative closures is overdue…the screwcap is not a cheap alternative to cork but a genuine quality closure in its own right.'

But there is a caveat: Decanter may champion screwcap even for many robust reds, but on the subject of ageing wines, the jury is still out.

Huon Hooke says, 'Many believe full-bodied reds aged long-term under cork build better character than under any other other closure…' and Decanter tastings manager Mark O'Halleron agrees, saying he's a 'huge fan of corks' and recognising 'their proven ability to age fine wines.'

But the overwhelming tide of opinion is in favour of screwcap - and Brian St Pierre even introduces a political note.

Railing against the need for 'hardware' and pompous sommeliers sniffing corks ('a redundant stunt no-one can pull off without looking silly') he concludes, 'Best of all, screwcaps are a nicely democratic reminder that wine should be a pleasure, not a performance.'

50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps is published in Decanter magazine August issue, out on 2 July.

Have your say...
To post your comment on this story, email us at, making sure the relevant headline is in the subject field

The experts may well agree that aluminium screw caps preserve the best qualities of wine better than alternative closures. I trust their opinions as experts. I have given my expert opinon upon why we need to be sure that such closures do not contaminate our wine with aluminium. It is a crime that neither manufacturers nor proponents of the screw cap have had to demonstrate its safety before it is used widely. If Decanter is so confident in promoting aluminium closures then put some money into supporting research which can demonstrate the safety of screw cap closures for wine. The head in the sand attititude adopted to-date is music to the ears of the aluminium industry but does not address the safety issues associated with screw cap closures.
Chris Exley

There is a point that many are missing about screwcaps and it is that of the health risk of the dioxines present on the plastic of the screwcaps (google for plastics and dioxines to learn more about it)

Now that there is so much talk about ecological wines, does it make sense to move to screwcaps that are a derivative from petrol and that can potentially can create health issues?

Furthermore, the political "democratic reminder" comment from Brian St Pierre looks just like another excuse. Is it democratic to force people into using a product from petrol which contaminates our earth and generate war conflicts? Opening a cork is very simple and no one looks silly opening one.

What I see here is the industry trying to force the public into screwcaps, which for them are much cheaper and easier to produce and use than corks. Please remember that corks are ecological and proven for centuries to be safe for health and screwcaps not.
Manuel Hernandez

Goodness gracious! Screwcaps lead to war? I'd thought all along it was politicians and generals with time

on their hands that got us to that point. And dioxins? My admiration is unbounded - this is demonizing on an operatic scale. Can't wait to see what voodoo is next. . .
Brian St Pierre, London, UK

"It's official: screwcap is the best closure for the vast majority of wines, both red and white," says Decanter.

There's nothing "official" about this verdict on screwcaps. Four wine writers and a foodie have an equivocal preference for screwcaps over cork. So what would they know? I have spoken to a lot of wine writers - Huon Hooke is among them - and by and large they understand next to nothing about how wine closures work. Worst of all, they don't care. Screwcapped wine is an experiment being conducted on the wine drinking public at their expense.
Brett Wright

Maybe it would have been more accurate to title your short report "Screwcaps are better (than cork)"? While I'm sympathetic to the environmental questions involved (what about using recycled aluminium?), I'm completely fed up with corked wines, especially EXPENSIVE corked wines, and far from convinced that there is a definitive solution to the problem in sight. However, there is an alternative "alternative" closure that almost no-one in the English-speaking world seems to be aware of, or at least mentions, namely glass "corks", which are now being used by an increasing number of German producers of fine wines (for example, the V.D.P. producer Schloss Vollrads, in the Rheingau). Like the screwcap, glass "corks" do require a specially-manufactured bottle, but, also like the screwcap, they require no "hardware" in order to open the wine and are very easily re-sealable. They also happen to look pretty good, although, to my eyes, some additional work needs to be done on making the capsule more "presentable". The downside, I believe, is that they are more expensive than either corks or screwcaps, but that shouldn't pose a problem for higher-priced, premium and super-premium wines. On the other hand, perhaps there are technical problems with the glass closure that I'm not aware of?
Gregory Sims, Berlin, Germany

Haven't we known it for years... And not only for the cheap stuff!

Mr St. Pierre reveals the intellectual level of his arguments against, and thereby for, the use of screw caps.
Chris Exley

I have long been convinced of the benefits of screwcaps, even for ageing. And I agree with others who say we have had enough of corked wines. But we cannot today ignore the environmental issues concerning wine closures: screwcaps have a bigger ecological footprint, as well as potential health issues, whereas corks can be part of a sustainable development scheme. I do not want my wines to be tainted by TCA, or simply lacking freshness, but I also want to be an environmentally responsible citizen. I am torn...
Veronique Rivest, Quebec, Canada

I would encourage everyone to read George Tabor's book on the subject (To Cork or Not To Cork) before jumping to conclusions that Stelvin is the undisputed king of closures when it comes to all wines. While I highly encourage all winemakers to use a Stelvin type closure for wines that are produced to be consumed young, the relatively thin data that has been researched in the last ten years points to too many unknowns to be 100% definitive that Stelvin is the only way too go. High quality cork closures definitely still have a place and the research is far, far from conclusive that an inert environment that a screwcap creates is favorable at all to wines that require aging (read: MOST Old World wines). There is more than just tradition at play when it comes to cork closures but unfortunately very little scientific research has been done. Wineries like Bonnie Doon should be applauded for leading the charge to find solutions to cork related taint but even they have reverted back to cork for some of their products. It is true that inferior cork closures will harm wine but many other cost saving techniques will also damage wine that is meant to be aged. We are creating a “baby-with-the-bath-water” issue if we just say “cork is dead”. This issue will not and cannot be solved by a few (although highly respected) journalists pounding their collective fists and saying they know best. Scientific lab work needs to be further explored that fully explains the virtues and pitfalls of cork, synthetics, hybrids or screwcaps. Winemakers will have to adapt their winemaking styles to the new closures just as cork producers have to raise their quality if they wish to remain in the game. This issue is far from black & white and will not be solved anytime soon without serious financial influx from the industry to establish some true base data.
Jimmy Kawalek, Divino Wine Broker, CA, USA

Decanter descends to new lows in wine journalism, gainsaying my own frequent contention that wine writing is better in the UK than in the United States. Pompous sommeliers sniffing corks? Would the conclusion have been different if the sommeliers were humble? Or the corks were looked at rather than sniffed? Whatever do pompous cork-sniffing sommeliers have to do with this issue? Perhaps we should go ga-ga about Stelvin-snorting wine waiters?
John Trombley

Some of your readers seem to think that screw tops have only been around for about 10 years. I remember in 1981, working crush at Yalumba, I was staying with the Hill-Smith family who served me a Pewsey Vale Rhine Riesling with a screw top. Rather naively at the age of 19, I stated that I hoped that they would never use screw tops themselves. They very kindly explained that a] it was one of their own wines and b] that there had already been 20 years of research on the Stelvin closure including tests on how the wines age. Back in 1981, in Australia, the verdict was that the Stelvin was the better closure. I have since become totally converted to Stelvin, though, alas, the technology is not practical for my Broadbent Vinho Verde, unless I change the shape of the bottle.
Bartholomew Broadbent, San Francisco, USA

We would not even be having this discussion were it not for significant breakdown in marketplace mechanisms. Simply put, if every corked bottle that reaches the market was intercepted and returned to the producer, and the producer forced therefore to refund the money spent in full, this problem would have been addressed far more aggressively and a long time ago as well. The questions about the merits of Stelvin and equivalents remain, but I am still waiting, both personally and professionally, for wineries to show the sense of urgency in addressing the failure rate of corks their customers deserve.
Peter Granoff

Two years ago whilst cleaning out my wife's late parents cellar we came across 2 'vin-ordinare' wines, an 1970 HARDYS SIEGESDORF Riesling and a 1971 KAISER STUHL 'Black Forest', probably Mosel/Riesling or similar. Both were screw capped with the earliest 'Stelvin' and were taken off the market shortly thereafter because consumers were not ready for screwcaps. Both of these wines, 35 years after bottling were perfect, in fact, spectacular. Now, at the time although relatively cheap wines, they were nevertheless well made, dry grown, and most likely still hand picked. No oxidation, strawey and golden with a touch of kero and perfectly balanced. I doubt anything but a very lucky, consistent and hard grained cork with a lead seal would have gone the distance.
John Struik, Bendbrook Wines, South Australia

Oh My God - aluminium contamination, dioxins, war, carbon footprints, no history, no scientific tests - all humbug!

Aluminium contamination?
The screwcap has a saran (PVDC) liner between the wine and the tin, then the polyethylene wad, then the aluminium. Saran is a food grade plastic - in use for decades and on millions of food items daily - you may even wrap your sandwiches in it! Look in your pantry - you will see an assortment of jars and bottles, all sealed with a saran liner. Spirits, soft drinks, tomato sauce, etc etc. Even your favourite french mustard!

See above. Also, consider that many in the wine industry now regard “composite” corks as being the most effective cork closures (but not the most effective closure), but what is the composition of the adhesive which binds the cork granules together? Conspiracy theorists should have a look at this one! One cork manufacturer even boasts that they have a plastic disc on each end of their cork as a prophylactic - cork condoms anyone?

No idea where this is came from? Is the screwcap religious? Religions seem to start a lot of wars.

Ecological/Carbon footprint?
Plenty of dodgy environmental accounting going on here! The cork companies are mounting a massive PR campaign and with few positive product characters to highlight have latched onto the environment. Perhaps consider the ecological cost of the estimated 3-8% of faulty wines under cork, and have a harder look at the cork PR. Also remember that very little of the cork forest production ends up as wine corks, so there is no threat to the unique habitats of these forests in Portugal and Spain, despite what the Cork PR may have you believe. And screwcaps are recyclable, just like cork. It's a pity that so few of both are.

Lack of history with screwcaps?
Is 1959 early enough? The screwcap was developed in 1959 by respected French closure manufacturer Le Bouchage Macanique, and has been in use worldwide since then. You may not have seen it on your bottle shop shelves, but it has been. We may be “Down Under,” but here in Australia we have museum wines in screwcap dating to the early 1970,s. All in perfect condition.

Sorry guys, but there is no debate about this point - screwcaps were proven performers before afros and flares were first in fashion.

No scientific testing of screwcaps?
First, see above - extensive trials were conducted in the 1960's and again in the 1970's. Second, Google “AWRI closure trial” to find details on one of the most extensive closure trials publicly released. This trial commenced in 2001 (and still on-going), by the world renowned Australian Wine Institute is one of he landmark studies into wine closures. Essential reading for anyone wanting to knowledgably comment on screwcaps.

A few other comments.

Cork quality?
Corks are graded buy visual appearance alone. There is no effective grading by physical properties. So the most expensive natural corks are only slightly less likely to taint or allow oxidation than the cheapest. And in aged white wines under cork there is up to a 30% failure rate due to oxidation when the wine is over 5 years old. All due to cork variability.

Cork character?
Winemakers in Australia who now have over 10 years of commercial experience with screwcaps can now detect 'cork character' in fault free wines bottled under cork. The wine smells like a fresh cork! They comment that when all wines were sealed under cork they couldn't see this, but now that screwcaps are delivering wines with only wine character, the cork character is apparent.

Sulphides under screwcaps? Another debate founded on misinformation and prejudice. Another storm in a teacup. Screwcaps may not be perfect, but they are not the work of the devil either. Enjoy your wine, screw capped or otherwise!
Neil Larson, Winemaker, Tahbilk

I would not question Neil Larson's winemaking credentials nor would I consider his views on such to be 'humbug'. For his information, there are many instances where manufacturers and users of aluminium-based packaging claim without any scientific proof (for example, Tetra Pak, longlife packaging) that their product does not contaminate the stored product with aluminium. He has to concede that we do not know if aluminium screw caps contaminate wine with aluminium or not. This is not 'humbug'.
Chris Exley

I A flickering suspicion crossed my mind when bought a 1787 Lafite with the incised initials Th.J. that carried wax-covered screwcaps.

I phoned Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, to learn if Jefferson's extensive records made any mention of Stelvins. Guess what? The Jefferson archive had only recently received an old receipt, sent anonymously from Germany, showing that Stelvins had surfaced in Bordeaux during Jefferson's visit there.

To learn whether the cork-finished Lafite I had purchased for $1.25 million or the Stelvin version, which at supermarket discount cost $8, was better preserved, I opened both simultaneously. But I was not alone. There was only one trained claret palate I could trust - that of the venerable British critic André Simon (1877–1970) - so I channeled him, and, promptly at 11am, he showed up at my club. We
were joined in the tasting by W. Somerset Maugham.

I am happy to report that André and I agreed that the Stelvin Lafite was far superior and bound to be longer-lived. "It has gobs of fruit," André said. "I am not surprised. If you taste carefully, you can detect the Algerian base wine."
Howard G. Goldberg, New York City, USA

Firstly let me state that my business interests are both in Screwcap And Synthetic Corks,so my comments are totally non-affilated.I have over 27 Years experience in the Aluminium closure industry. Various comments and concerns have been raised under this topic;namely health risks of the Aluminium screwcap and that not enough research been done in this area: I TOTAL AGREE.

Firstly if one looks at the manufacturing/coating/printing .Pressing, side printing, rolling and lining process of these and all Aluminium closures plus materials being use, you will start to understand the need for such research. Firstly it is impossible to avoid Aluminium dust from entering the inside of these closures.I see it daily. It is not easy to spot as it is a whitish powder on the inside of the closure. But it is there; If the tooling is blunt it contributes,to mention just one cause of many. Another issue is liner dust when wad liners are utilized. This is almost impossible to see. Inks and coatings: vinyl coatings,colour pigments are essentially lead based. Polyester coating have organic pigments. Wineries are using Screwcap closures with perhaps no knowledge of which is being used (lead or organic) More importantly is the internal coating on the closure lead free?. We need to establish a set of standards,conformances,international standards of material requirements(call it what you will). Even FDA or EU standards are not enough,we need to be Screwcap specific. There is a lot at stake! One bad incident could blow the whole Screwcap and aluminium closure industry out of the water. Is this an overreaction? Not at all. Our time has been taken up with debate upon debate of which is the best Cork, Screwcap or Synthetic,with a total disregard to the consumers safety and well-being. Maybe we need to tell them again. Screwcaps are the best, i promise they will believe you. Drop them with a health issue or any related incidents they will come down hard on us all.

The environmental issues are worthy of serious discussion in relation to both aluminium and cork closures. However, screw caps are great for the 'anywhere, anytime' approach to consuming wine. After all, with all the wine available for consumption who wants to wait around for the corkscrew that someone forgot to bring ?

Additionally, screw caps are certainly helping to demistify the whole business of wine consumption for many people around the world and this is really a great sales advantage.

While we wait on the verdict concerning those wines with aging potential, let us un-screw a few bottles of our favourites or new discoveries aand continue the debate.
Marilyn Bennett, Kingston, Jamaica

It is staggering how much ignorance, or perhaps deliberate malice, has been spread about the evils of screwcaps: one of your correspondents comments that "screwcaps have never had to have their safety independently validated": utterly false: all the materials used in screwcaps have been licenced by every major food health authority in the world. Another refers to the "dioxines" (sic) present in the plastics in screwcaps. This is nothing less than slanderous: there are no plastics in screwcaps which have any dioxins, pthalates or any other harmful material in them. Again this is independently confirmed by over 50 food safety authorities.

The number of times these lies are repeated you have to wonder whether the slanders are deliberately propagated by those with a vested interest to do so.
Nigel Greening, Bannockburn, New Zealand

While proponents of screwcaps seem to be an amiable and convivial bunch, with their egalitarian ethos and their wine-drinking spontenaity, there are to my mind some very real issues in terms of the appropriateness of stelvin closures for fine wine that go unremarked upon in this light and breezy piece in Decanter. First and foremost, the ability for wine to evolve and improve in the bottle with the same reliability as it has done for centuries under cork (which has an enviable track record above and beyond the percentage of TCA-contaminated bottles) is certainly no given with stelvin closures, and the longer one moves out from bottling to the point of drinking the wine, the more questions arise about how wines evolve under screwcap. While losing an expensive bottle to TCA taint is always painful, or losing an not so expensive bottle to corkiness when it is the only one in the flat, is never a pleasant experience (and happens with enough frequency for many winedrinkers and trade folk to latch onto any potential alternative), it seems clear to me that there have been no rigorous testing of long-term aging of wine under screwcaps. The few comments that I have seen regarding long-term aging of wines under screwcaps are invariably anecdotal (the discovered bottles in the in-laws cellar that have aged brilliantly under stelvin are a perfect example), as the reality is that most stelvin-closed wines are drunk within a couple of years after bottling. As I prefer to drink virtually all of the wines in my cellar with significantly more bottle age than a couple of years, I am extremely reluctant to lay down any wines closed under screwcaps, as I have simply not seen any research that confirms stelvin's ability to match the performance of natural cork for long-term cellaring.

The second issue that is even more troubling to me when it comes to utlizing screwcaps for wine closures has to do with the apparently strong tendency of wines sealed under stelvin to develop sulphide reduction after a few years in bottle. This is a complicated issue that has rather strident proponents on both sides of the debate, but both camps agree that nearly all wines have a tendency towards sulphide reduction, and the question is ultimately which closure is the best at minimizing the incidence of sulphide reduction in the wines over time. For those unfamiliar with the chemistry involved, very simply put, virtually all wines are possessed of sulfur-based molecules that can have a tendency towards sulphide reduction, which if allowed to develop in an unfavorable way can lead to off-putting aromatics and flavors. These sulfur compounds that have a tendency towards sulphide reduction are the byproducts of any yeast fermentation beverage, and there is simply no way to avoid them completely, though as we shall see there are some rather questionable intervention techniques that can be utilized prior to bottling of the wine to try and minimize the likelihood of these sulfur compounds developing into sulphide reduction and ruining the wine.

From the data that I have seen, sulphide reduction in wine tends to be inhibited by the presence of oxygen, and this has been one of the historic advantages that corks have enjoyed over screwcaps, in that they allow a small degree of oxygen egress over time which apparently keeps sulphide reduction at bay. In fact, screwcap manufacturers are busily trying to develop stelvin closures that can replicate cork's oxygen permeability, and in the future this may well be the development that puts stelvin over the top and makes it clearly appropriate for use as a wine closure. However, that is still in the research phase, and the vast, vast majority of screwcaps used today form perfect anaerobic seals which do not allow any oxygen egress, so it seems self-evident to me that claims that screwcaps are the way to go (even based on the ability to get away from all those cork-sniffing sommeliers) are a bit premature. Screwcap proponents behind the scenes have recognized this tendency towards sulphide reduction over time in wines sealed under stelvin, and now energetically encourage winemakers to intervene prior to bottling to try and reduce the likelihood of this reduction occuring in the wines in bottle. However, in my opinion, the intervention advocated is the biggest Achille's Heel for the entire project, as winemakers are urged to fine their wines with copper sulphate, which chemically bonds with the sulfur molecules in the wine, and hence diminishes the potential for sulphide reduction down the road. The problem with copper sulphate fining is twofold- first, copper bonds with all sulfur molecules in the wine, some of which are not prone to reduction and just happen to be responsible for much of the aromatic and flavor complexity that develops in time in a wine with bottle age. Secondly, and most importantly in my view, copper is a heavy metal that does not leave the wine after the fining, and is not safe above a certain threshold for human consumption.

Given the apparent options of a certain percentage of wines lost to TCA-taint versus screwcap-sealed wines that may or may not evolve positively with extended bottle age, and seemingly need to be fined with a heavy metal to improve their potential to survive under their closure, it seems very clear to me which is the preferred direction to take at this time. Therefore, ever wine in my cellar and every bottle I drink is sealed under cork, and if I lose a small percentage to TCA, it seems to me highly preferable to the alternatives as they stand today. It is entirely conceivable that down the road stelvin or another alternative closure system to natural cork will prove to be the most attractive option for fine wine, but in my opinion it is specious and unresponsible to suggest that screwcaps are the best option currently available today.
John Gilman, New York, USA

I am not sure who or which organisation Nigel Greening represents but he is wrong about aluminium and screw caps. There has not been any independent research demonstrating that aluminium screw caps do not contaminate the product with aluminium. If there has been any in-house research by the industry then they are not telling anyone about it.
I am not scare-mongering. My only interest is understanding the bioinorganic chemistry of aluminium and the myraid ways in which it might impact upon human health. I am keen to find out that screw caps do not contaminate the product as this will allow me to drink the many first class wines which are stored under screw cap. Until I have this information I will, with some regret, avoid such wines.
Chris Exley

Having followed the recent cork versus screwcap debate very closely since it began around a decade ago, I'd make the following points.

Screwcaps are almost certainly not THE answer for wine. But nor are corks. And for the moment at least, as the Decanter panel found, they are decidedly the better option - until other better options (possibly including some of the glass stoppers currently under development) come along.

It is too often forgotten that great wines were enjoyed and developed reputations for themselves long before corks began to be used three and a half centuries ago. And that the introduction of corks was initially as contested (because of the flavour they gave wine) by proponents of the glass stoppers then in use as Screwcaps are today.

The cork industry has been almost unique in its laxity over quality control (laxity that is compounded by - mostly Old World - producers who do not test their corks before using them) and the dishonesty with which it has tried to fight competition from alternative closures. Erroneous claims that synthetic corks cause cancer are just one example of the dirty tricks that have been employed.

The wine industry is also hugely at fault in its lack of research into the effectiveness of closures. Significant tests were launched in Bordeaux in the late 1960s, but not continued. I have carried out a number of my own tests, including most usefully a blind tasting at Vinexpo five years ago when a set of alternatively sealed wines were blind tasted against wines from the same producers vineyards and vintages sealed with corks. The results - published in Wine International magazine - supported the alternative cause very effectively, but it was notable that almost all of the older alternatively-sealed bottles - such as 1996 Penfolds reds - came from the New World. There were no Old World examples to be found. The jury may indeed still be out on the way wines age under screwcap but that's largely because we've taken so long to ask the question.

50 years ago it was still common for Bordeaux chateaux to bottle directly barrel by barrel and to sell wine to merchants who bottled overseas. Today, the levels of variability this inevitaby caused would be totally unacceptable. And that, stated simply, beyond any issues of TCA cork taint, is the problem with corks. There is no way to be sure that two corks will behave identically.

There are of course people who think that bottle variation is part of the "romance" of wine. I beg to differ. There IS romance in the errors in Persian rugs and medieval cathedrals because they were deliberately included by the weavers and church builders as a mark of respect to their respective almighties. The only deity involved in disappointing bottles of wine is the one whose name gets taken in vain by the disappointed wielder of the corkscrew.
Robert Joseph

Decanter Verdict? Then why are only 38% of your readers in favour of screwcaps? Surely that says it all. Experts? An ex is a has been and a 'spurt' is a drip under pressure! The New World use screw caps because they are cheaper. I'll stick to corks and enjoy the 'snobbery' (?) of sniffing one!
Brandy O'Sullivan (a cork aficionado)

Note to Chris Exley: It appears that Mr. St. Pierre's satirical remarks speak in defense of the screw cap, or at least against the hysteria surrounding them. All things considered, Mr. St. Pierre's intellectual level actually is quite sound.
Gary Tonucci

Adam Lechmere