Few words in the English language are a finer example of onomatopoeia, or a word that imitates a sound. The inimitable sound of a cork releasing from its bottle is a ‘pop’ that every wine lover cherishes with immense anticipation of what flows next. The sound denotes celebration and the action of ‘popping bottles’ has engrained itself as a staple of modern party culture, music, and slang.
But with nearly 20 billion closures going onto bottles each year, we may need to accept that cork is not always the best material for sealing a bottle of wine.
Historically, natural cork has been the closure of choice for good wine, but it's facing some competition. (Photo by Jonathan Borba via Pexels)
Glass stoppers have gained popularity in German and Austrian wines (having been developed first in Germany), but have been slow to gain momentum elsewhere. Designed to fit into the bottle like a flat topped stopper, an O-ring seals the wine to the neck of the bottle making an airtight seal.
Pros: They are seldom used and have a ‘unique’ appeal, and appear to allow for less risk of oxidation in the bottle than traditional synthetic corks.
Cons: They do not allow the wine to breathe, which is necessary for long term aging.
PACKAGING ALTERNATIVES - BOXES, KEGS, AND CANS
It's not just the closure that's undergoing change. We're also seeing changes to packaging, with the growing popularity of boxed wines, kegs, and cans.
The common image of the ‘wine connoisseur’ is one that evokes haughty arrogance and snobbery. However, the next generation of wine lovers has embraced less traditional packaging.
Boxed wine has evolved from your grandmother’s white zinfandel to wines of noted quality from France, Italy, California and beyond. Consumers can now find boxed wines ranging from the traditional party size to the equivalent of individual 750ml bottles in just about every varietal imagined.
As the alternative packaging market grows, producers have begun think ‘outside of the box’ using cans and kegs. Canned wine has made a brave and welcome foray into the wine market in recent years, with praise for its convenience.
Pros: Portable and appropriate for outdoor events, these bottle alternatives make transporting wine easy. The airtight packaging reduces the possibility of oxidation ruining your wine. With a lighter weight than glass and made from recycled cardboard, boxes have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional bottles.
Cons: These packaging options are meant for wines to be consumed young; little aging or maturation is needed within the container and may not be optimal for long time cellaring.
Here at Re:Rooted, we've committed to the keg and growler system. With a growler fill and return policy, we’ve managed to eliminate our glass waste by and estimated 70%. We estimate that each bottle used is sold up to four times. In the first 12 months of business we were able to eliminate 2,500 glass bottles from a landfill by pouring from tap to glass.
Screw caps no longer bear the stigma of cheap wine. (Photo by PMV Chamara via Unsplash)
Throughout history, natural cork has been considered to be a ‘nearly perfect product’, making trade and transport of liquids effective and profitable. Bottled wine requires small amounts of oxygen to continue developing complex flavors. With cork’s breathable nature, natural cork has been the choice that winemakers have steadfastly adorned their bottlenecks with.
But with the discovery of possible wine contamination from natural cork, the complete dominance of cork dropped from 95% market share in 1981 to 70% today. Cork producers have waged a marketing war addressing issues such as age-ability, carbon footprints and even agricultural job decline in an effort to slow the steadily widening gap.
The term ‘corked wine’ describes a detectable fault due to a contaminated cork.
Trichloroanisole [(TCA) 2,4,6], is a compound released by mold which infests the bark from which corks are made. It is estimate that one in every fifteen bottles — or roughly 5% of production — are affected by this cork taint.
A tainted cork creates a musty scent similar to that of wet, molding, cardboard. The scent can be aggressive or slight, but it will also change the way the wine tastes by ‘flattening’ the fruit and diminishing tertiary flavors. While ingesting TCA is not dangerous, it most certainly is not pleasant and wines that are affected may be exchanged at most wineries, restaurants and retailers without question.
In the early 90’s a Seattle company named Supreme Cork produced one of the early credible and most widely accepted natural cork alternatives. Synthetic corks are made from plastic while still maintaining the breathability and quality seal of natural cork.
Synthetics were met with great enthusiasm by the Australian and New Zealand wine industry at a time when their export status to the United States and Europe was surging.
Pros: The risk of TCA taint from cork is eliminated.
Cons: While glass contracts with temperature fluctuation, not all synthetic materials will follow suit exposing unwanted oxygen to the wine.
Stelvin Closures (Screwcaps)
While many of us associate the screwcap with cheap bottles of Boones Farm or Night Train, the tidy and efficient aluminum cap has found its way into boutique winemakers’ hearts worldwide.
The simple, secure closure provides a cost-effective alternative to natural cork. One of Australia’s most decorated wine researchers, Dr. Bryce Rankin, compared more than 3,000 bottles with various closure types over a seven-year period, finding that screwcap wines to age with superior quality.
Pros: The screwcap is easy to open and requires no additional tools. The seal appears to allow the wine to age with more ‘freshness’. While a more recent addition to wine bottles, the screwcap has a record for preserving quality since introduced in the 1950s. The consumer market is increasingly receptive to high price wines with screwcaps to protect their investment from TCA.
Cons: No sex appeal… and most of us still remember the Boones Farm Strawberry Hill hangover.
Re:Rooted offers wines on tap and distributes reusable and returnable 'growlers' (Photo provided by Re:Rooted)
THERE'S STILL A PERCEPTION ISSUE
A 2017 study by Oxford University found that our auditory experience affects the ‘perceived value’ of wine.
140 participants were asked to taste two (unknown to them) identical wines. They were asked to rate the quality of a wine after hearing the sound of a cork pop and again after hearing the screwcap opening. Next, they rated the wines once again, but after actually opening the same wine in a traditional cork enclosure and a screwcap.
The participants rated the quality of the wine with cork as 15% higher than that of the screwcap despite being the exact same wine. The lesson: don’t judge a bottle by its enclosure!
Whether you are seeking more unconventional ways to sip your wines or staunchly defend the traditional, there are more wines being produced internationally than ever. Find the bottle of your dreams and savor the crafted artistry it holds. Happy Popping!
No Pop Required - Wines On Tap
2021 Duchman Family Winery: Trebbiano
Notes of candied citrus, fresh herbs and bracingly refreshing acidity
2021 Llano Estacado: Rosé
Intense minerality, watermelon fruit and rose petals
2018 Re:Rooted 210: Malbec
Jammy raspberry fruit, tobacco and caramel
Jennifer Beckmann and her husband John own the Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery in Hemisfair