Some believe corkscrews to be a daunting contraption, designed to humiliate you when you are trying to open a bottle of wine, which is otherwise known to be a pretty basic task. I know some people who won’t even buy cork top wine because they ‘can’t’ open the bottle, so will automatically opt for the screw cap. This genuinely makes me sad. For me, opening a bottle of wine is a whole experience. When I was doing tours at the winery, I would sometimes go on a rant about how anti screw cap I am (because I’m sooo professional). But the thing is, I am pretty anti screw cap. It’s not that I wouldn’t buy a bottle if it was screw capped but I would always prefer to buy a bottle if it was cork topped.
For literally hundreds of years, cork topped wine has been the preferred way of capping wine, however in the past 10-20 years there has been a surge in screw caps, and what was once seen as a cheap alternative, synonymous with low quality wine, is now widely seen as the normal way to cap your wine, especially in the ‘New World’.
How did screw caps become so widely used? Well, basically, many producers from New Zealand and Australia were getting fed up with being sent low quality corks. Portugal is the world leader in producing corks. Very simply, a wine cork is made by extracting cork oak bark from a tree and punching little cylinders into it. There are different styles and different qualities, for example, low quality wine corks are made from sticking cork chips together.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘Corked’ before. It’s when a wine has gone bad from suffering ‘cork taint’ (Proper description here). Cork contains a natural compound called trichloroanisole, otherwise referred to as TCA, and when a cork has high volumes of TCA in them; they impart a very musty smell into the wine. I normally say it smells like a wet dog that’s just come in from a long, rainy walk.
Basically, a lot of producers from NZ and AUS were getting sick of being sent corks that contained high volumes of TCA; which was spoiling their wine, so they decided to take action and start topping their wines with screw caps. This mass-boycott helped to bring the screw cap into the mainstream and so many producers started adopting this style that in the turn of the century, people predicted a mass decline in cork production. It is worth pointing out that Amorim, the biggest producer of corks in the world have been working on improving the quality of the corks and have been at the forefront of the ‘cork rejuvenation’
To be honest, why wouldn’t you want to use a screw cap? It’s cheaper, better for the environment and prevents cork taint. Wines can still be oxidised (when too much air gets into the wine, turning it vinegary) but it’s not a common occurrence. Well… this is all well and good but for me personally, there isn’t any ceremony to a screw cap. As I mentioned before, opening a bottle of wine is an experience and as I have banged on about so many times before, wine is an experience in itself. I love opening bottles of wine, I love cutting the foil, I love delicately plunging my corkscrew into the cork, turning it until the first ‘lip’ of the corkscrew slots onto the top of the bottle, all whilst keeping the label facing the person I am pouring it for. I love pulling up on the lever and feeling the cork come loose, then slotting the second ‘lip’ onto the top of the bottle and gently pulling the remainder of the cork out of the bottle, then hearing a tiny little pop, smelling the end of the cork and then pouring and hearing the first few glugs as the wine leaves the bottle. It’s a ceremony, it’s grandiose and when appreciated, it makes even the most normal evening of sitting on the couch, watching Gogglebox a little bit more special (in my opinion anyway).
There’s a few different alternatives to screw caps and corks, for example I met a winemaking duo back in March who used bottle caps to seal their wine and Luckett Vineyards also use a bottle cap to cap their Frizzante style wine, the ‘Phone Box Fizz’. I used to get people marvelling at the fact we were opening the wine just like we would a beer and it was a great novelty, but for me, that’s what it was… a novelty.
This is just one person’s opinion, and of course I am biased towards my point of view, however, as I mentioned previously, I won’t judge anybody on putting screw caps on their wine, especially for financial reasons. I know full well due to my current job position the importance of being cost effective whilst still providing quality products and service. I just like what I like.
When it comes to corkscrews there are a range of them to use. You can the atrocious ‘leg’ ones that take any elegance out of opening a bottle of wine, or you can use the big lever contraptions that look more like something you’d get from a tool box and again take all the elegance out of opening a bottle of wine or you can stick with the classic ‘waiter’s corkscrew’, a small device that is subtle, elegant and in my opinion is a necessity in life.
The waiter’s corkscrew is really easy and efficient to use and once people get over the initial confusion, it brings back all the elegance and ceremony of opening a bottle (hence why waiters use them). I remember when I was 19, doing my stint in the Hamptons, New York and paying my dues as a ‘lowly’ busboy (we really got treated like shit), a representative of Chateau Minuty Rose was sat down to dinner, he was showing off and he stopped, gave me a Minuty branded corkscrew and said in a really showboaty “Go sell me some Minuty”. I didn’t care for his attitude but that was the first corkscrew I owned and I kept it, and used it for six years. It wasn’t anything special, it didn’t cost me anything but it was my first corkscrew. Very shortly afterwards, due to constant use, the Minuty logo faded away and it was just a generic black waiter’s corkscrew. That corkscrew went with me back to Sheffield, to Preston, to Toronto, through several moves across London, then on a bicycle trip to Paris and then Lille. I used to take it everywhere with me, which in hindsight, given the state of emergency that France had entered in 2016 due to a number of terrorist attacks, probably wasn’t the smartest move. Unfortunately, when I was moving back to England, I somehow lost my beloved Minuty corkscrew. I still haven’t properly replaced it. I have several corkscrews but I’m still looking for a replacement to live up to the memories and joy that the Minuty corkscrew brought me, every time I opened a bottle of wine with it.
In this day and age, with a changing demographic of wine drinkers, with people’s drinking habits changing and with wine makers themselves challenging the norm then I think it is a good time for myself, as a consumer to stop being so ‘precious’ about cork topped wine. I actually bought a couple of bottles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc this week with screw caps and the wine was lovely, so yeah I think I should stop being so stuck in my ways… nah, I love the ceremony too much.
– J A M E S