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More Than a Pretty (Wine) Package

We live in exciting wine times. As my colleague Rodolphe wrote, wine drinkers have access to higher quality options than ever before. Technology has made wines more consistent and more stable once in the bottle and innovative trials bring us wines from places never imagined like Tasmania. Unfortunately we wine consumers haven’t evolved as quickly. We are still enamored with the romance of a glass bottle and a tree-made cork, despite their shortcomings. Today’s post is a study into the alternatives.

Jeannine Babcock: Hello Dini – I have noticed several wines going away from natural cork to synthetic corks? Is there a reason other than economic? Also I have noticed white wines going towards the screw cap and no using corks at all? Trend or other? Thank you for your response. 

Yes, corks have a natural defect rate of around 5-7% in varying degrees. The most common problem is cork taint or a “corked” bottle, which can be detected when the wine has a cardboard-like or wet dog smell and lacks any fruit character. Read more about the problem in the Cork Dork College post All Corked Up.

While these bottles are perfectly safe to drink, they aren’t the best showing of a wine, so many wineries prefer to explore alternatives to make sure you taste the real deal each and every time.

Synthetic corks are an OK choice for wine that you would drink fresh rather than age for a while, hence their common use in white wines. They haven’t found a way yet to make these corks have a perfect seal with the bottle, so oxygen creeps in over time and degrades the wine. Screw tops actually offer a great solution and testing shows that they may even withstand aging in your cellar. However, there is still much to be seen with aging over long periods of time since you won’t find any ’82 Petrus with a screw top (not authentic at least!)

Now even better solutions are being developed such as the glass Vino-lok ones that I have found on many Austrian bottles and corks fitted with an impermeable membrane so the wine can’t be affected by any cork taint. It is a hot topic in the wine industry now and the good news is that it will only continue to get better.

Most importantly if you suspect you may have received an off bottle at a restaurant just ask them. A good restaurateur will taste the wine and let you know. If it is a bad bottle, they will bring you a fresh bottle that will hopefully taste completely different. If you just didn’t like the wine, don’t fake “corked,” as you will only get another bottle of the same wine!

Murray Daniel: What do you think it will take to get wineries to switch from corks to quality screw caps like the Stevlin to help eliminate corked bottles of wine?

Now that is a great question. I think it will require a few things. First better data about what screw tops do over time (see my answer above). Second, wineries need to change their formula for making wine to adjust to this new method of bottling and closures. Using natural porous cork, a winemaker expects some oxygen exchange once the wine is in bottle. A wine needs a certain amount of SO2 to prevent any oxidation and keep the wine fresh. Now that wineries are experimenting with screw tops, which are much less permeable, the amount of SO2 needed is reduced. The desirable level is not an exact science, so a new recipe needs to be developed. And lastly, it is up to us the wine consumers to show with our wallets that we are ready for these new closures and don’t miss the cork if it means getting better quality wine.

Richele Nutter Nealeigh: So is boxed wine really good? Is it the cheap way out? If it’s good, what is a good brand/label to buy?

Back in the days of Franzia in your fridge (don’t deny it), the packaging for boxed wines wasn’t ideal. The bags inside the boxes weren’t hermetically sealed so while sitting on a grocery store shelf the wine became oxidized. Ironically when opened, the box lasts longer than an open glass bottle since the bag collapses and doesn’t leave room for air that deteriorates the wine. Now, wine in a box has come a long way and along with better packaging, comes better wine. I often take boxes of wine camping or on canoe trips. I’ve had good luck with the French Rabbit brand and find the red wines to be a safer bet.