Corks Versus the Competition

For hundreds of years, corks have sealed bottles of wine. The bark of cork trees, part of the earth like grapes, have protected one of humankind’s ageless treasures, wine. Technology, along with all its promises, has tried to disturb this ancient relationship, replacing cork stoppers with either screw caps or synthetic corks. In this debate in the wine community, at stake is whether wine should undergo modernization even though it provides minimal, if any, improvement. In contrast, a worthwhile argument could be made for the opposite, that screw caps and synthetic corks betray the natural world that supplies the wine.

The story of cork wine stoppers is old, with roots going back to the ancient world. In the chaos of of the collapse of the ancient world, cork’s usage vanished. Cork was rediscovered by monk Don Perignon for champagne in the 1600s. Its superiority was quickly established, and by the late 18th century, cork production had taken a foothold in Portugal, the eventual heart of the cork industry. To this day, more than half of the world’s cork comes from cork trees of Portugal.

The pioneers of cork were nothing if not wise. Cork is a good deal all around. No trees come down to collect cork since cork stoppers are made from the bark. Every decade or so, the bark is stripped off the tree, a tree which lives approximately 150 years. Plus, wine corks permit the right air exchange (oxidation) to allow a wine to age properly. Some 200 years old wines that were stopped with corks have maintained their drinkability. In short, wine corks are biological wonder seemingly perfect for wine, as well as biodegradable, recyclable and practical.  So why change something that has worked over the centuries?

Ostensibly, the justification behind this trend has been the small percentage of wine spoiled by being or “corked” or tainted with TCA, a chemical used to sanitize corks. In fact, considering many studies, merely 1% to 3% of bottles of wine suffer from this. Only experienced wine tasters and those who carefully smell the wine detect when this happens to a wine. Still, the cork industry has gone to great lengths to contain the problem. The rare event of a contaminated bottle, although tragic, doesn’t override the fact that the other methods are as silly as plastic bags at the grocery store. Plastic corks and metal caps mock environmental sustainability.

The fact remains that the alternatives to cork fail in matching the versatility of corks. Sure, bottle caps are recyclable but a portion will end up in dumps. Plastic goes nowhere, as if it was some chemical stone left to litter the earth. Neither is good for aging. And it’s strange the double think of screw cap argue—claiming its both air tight and good for aging. Let’s not forget the basic economics. The elephant in the room is that screw caps and plastics are cheaper (reflecting the vintners indifference to cheap being placed next to their wine). Yes, whole nations who have given up cork like Austrailia and New Zealand produce exceptional wine, but we must ask at what cost?

Underneath all the advertising done as of late by the cork industry, they have a natural solution that has satisfied generation upon generation. Of course, tradition isn’t a good enough reason to oppose change, nor, however, is change worthwhile when it misses the big picture. With that, nothing, hopefully, will come between cork, wine, and wine lovers.