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Why wine distributors should give screw-cap wine a chance

Mar 10, 2015

Credit Flickr user Geoffrey Fairchild / Flickr

About 10 years ago, when the occupationally snooty world of wine was introduced to the radical idea of putting screw caps on bottles of fine wine, the reaction in some quarters was utter horror.

Until then, the only wines with screw caps to be found anywhere were hip pocket-sized bottles of reinforced wines called Night Train and White Lightening.

In 2004, a study found more than half of American consumers and 60% of British wine drinkers the idea of screw caps on their fine wine.

But inside the wine world, there was a big problem, and screw caps offered a potentially big solution.

Depending on who is counting, about four to six percent of fine table wines finished with the good old–fashioned cork were coming up spoiled and not drinkable. One reason: corks leak and let air into the bottle and oxidize the wine.

A new kind of solidly leak-proof screw cap called the Stelvin closure, being tested by Australian and New Zealand wineries, was cutting that spoilage rate in half. Or more.

The design of the Stelvin forms a tighter air seal than a cork to keep out oxygen. That's a huge benefit in maintaining the wine's overall quality and letting it age well.

The Stelvin, it appeared, could save wineries millions of dollars.

"Inside the wine world, there was a big problem, and screw caps offered a potentially big solution."

The second advantage of the screw cap was that by not being made of cork it also eliminated a second problem called cork-taint, a chemical leaching that occurs randomly from some corks, giving wine musty smells, off-putting odors, and changing how the wine tastes.

It turns out that as far back as the 1970s, the vaunted top French wine house Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, had experimented with screw caps, putting 100 bottles with screw caps under long-term observation to see what would happen.

Haut-Brion manager Jean-Bernard Delmas reported, after years of experimentation, that "it worked perfectly for the first ten years, until the plastic in the caps went brittle and let air in.”

In other experiments, a researcher also found off odor like rotten eggs in wine with screw caps.

But the big unanswered question on that remains: was it the screw cap, or was it something in the wine itself?

Today the screw cap use continues to increase, but with some clear delineations.

More and more younger white and red wines, those best consumed in less than five years, are being sold with screw caps.

But, for the consumer spending $30 and up, the romance of twisting that wine key into that staid old cork and the "pop" sound of pulling it out is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

-- Chris Cook, Chief wine and restaurant critic for Hour Detroit Magazine