Cork and the Cork Alternatives
Written by Chuck Vose
Filed Under: Wine Corks
Cork Alternatives and Cork-taint
In the last thirty years there has been a fiery debate about the future of corks and what to do about cork-taint. Natural corks often contain a contaminant called TCA, which changes the flavor of a wine drastically and reduces the desirability of a fine wine to nothing. Fortunately new types of sealers have come into the industry and for once there are provisions for small wine makers, or people who make under 3000 cases per year.
What is TCA
2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA for short, is a fungus that can be found all over the world and is especially partial to growing on Asparagus and the bark from a cork tree. The smell of TCA is absolutely unmistakable and is described best as either a musty closet or moldy cardboard. Somewhere between 5% of all bottles and up to 25% of all cork contains TCA and is therefore totally unusable.
Despite the massive efforts by the world's cork producers, TCA is still not at an acceptable level and investigations into other methods of sealing have come a long way while new cork technology has long surpassed the efforts of the cork producers.
Our experience has been that synthetic corks, such as the nomacorc, offer significant advantages over natural corks in almost every way. They don't dry out or require conditioning, they do age very well, do not suffer from TCA, and do not require new equipment. In fact, the only real reason to not use them is a higher cost to wine makers and lack of long-term aging research.
Plastic twist-tops and metal screw-tops have hit the industry running and are gaining converts left and right. Neither cap is susceptible to TCA but each has it's own caveats. Plastic twist-tops do not age at all, can't be stored upside down, aren't sterile and require special bottles, but they are cheap and don't even need a corker. A plastic twist-top is a fine seal for a wine that will be consumed quickly and may be just the ticket for many of the young and special purpose wines, such as wedding favors where the important part is the personalized label.
Metal Screw tops
Metal screw tops are the industrial-sized answer to corks since these seals have been used for decades on all manner of bottle and jar. These seals are great for storing, cheap after the initial investment, sterile, and very well researched. However, they require special equipment, new bottles that aren't produced heavily yet, and as with plastic twist-tops have a serious stigma surrounding them. But many wine connoisseurs have spoken loudly for these sealers with one Internet poll reaching the 66% approval mark after 1400 votes. But research isn't complete yet and until there are some twenty and thirty year tests many producers will accept the risk of losing 6% to bad bottles rather than risk entire batches to failure ten years down the line.
Box wine / Casks
Interestingly, there is a movement to do away with bottles altogether and go to sterile bags in boxes or casks. Casks have even more of a stigma than twist top wine and in America this is certainly deserved, however it is a legitimate option and a large portion of Europe's wineries are moving in this direction. The idea has its merits, and the process has no major faults other than the stigma. It is cheap, sterile, not prone to oxidization, stores easily, and more. Yet, until this stigma has cooled off chances are we will never see a box wine; only taste it when served as the house wine.
While this isn't much of an option for the small vintner, the consumer will find that more and more high quality casks are being released at quality outlets such as Whole Foods and the high level vintner just might find their niche in the rising cask market.