A Cork Dork Guide to Alternative Wine Closures

While alternative styles of bottle closures are not new to the wine world – as screw caps and composite stoppers are becoming industry staples – there are a myriad of new types of wine closures that have emerged. been around lately.

Yes, there is something amazing about a cork: the banging sound. The smell. The timelessness of it. But some winemakers have made the decision to swap the closure we all know and love for a variety of reasons. For some, it is about market differentiation. For others, it is supply chain demand. And for yet another group, it’s a way of being a little more sustainable. But however you cut it, these cork substitutes aim to improve the art of winemaking and wine drinking.

Alternative country

Britt Richards, winemaker for Head High in Sonoma, Calif., Says the brand now uses screw caps for convenience – a good idea with RTD cocktails and canned wine still hot on the market. Screw caps help make wine portable and resealable, allowing bottles to be enjoyed for a few days rather than all at once. She also notes that screw caps help alleviate spoiled and spoiled wine.

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In fact, says Steve Cass of Paso Robles, California-based Cass Winery, today’s screw caps are advanced engineered cases that are meant to be treated as such. “Since you don’t stopper 5% of the bottles, the overall wine will be better,” he says.

Nowadays, however, alternative closures go beyond composites and screw caps, and have also grown to include cane, glass, and other interesting and rarer types of composites that apparently exhibit a great story even before the first glass is poured.

Rhonéa, a wine estate in the Côtes du Rhône appellation in France, is stepping up its use of cork with different types of synthetic corks, in part for environmental reasons.

“In addition to natural cork stoppers, we use synthetic stoppers – Nomacorc Smart Green or Select Green in sugar cane – and screw caps. Nomacorcs are 100% recyclable and screw caps are increasingly popular for export, ”explains Valérie Vincent, communications manager for the estate.

Vincent notes that sustainability and quality played a role in the wine label’s choice to embark on alternative cork stoppers, explaining that cork producers have developed new solutions that take into account the environment and durability. “This is why we are now happy to use alternative caps such as Nomacorc. They offer good qualities while being more responsible, ”she says.

While some winemakers change their preferences for the sake of sustainability, let’s not forget that cork is a sustainable resource. To produce it, the bark of a tree is mowed like a sheep and then regenerated. But for some, it’s not just about the durability factor, it’s about the quality of the product itself. While only around 5% of bottles closed with cork are affected by the smell of cork, some winegrowers believe that this is already more than enough.

Jean-Frédéric Bistagne, winemaker and owner of Domaine des Maravilhas, is one of these professionals. As of 2018, he only uses ArdeaSeal caps, made from bioplastic derived from sources such as corn starch, sugar cane, sugar beet, cellulose and vegetable oils. “I had too many problems with TCA cork taste, cork leakage, dry corks, and tasting wines with higher variance due to the material of the cork itself,” he says.

Switching to this style of closure was a major investment, requiring her to change her bottling equipment, as the closure is not symmetrical and, instead of being squeezed, is pushed into the bottle and expands to ensure a good closure. However, he says the cost was well worth it. His final product was more homogeneous and he compensated for his investment by the decrease in wine losses. “I improved the cost structure of my wines because I don’t taste like cork and I have to send in replacement bottles,” he says.

Consumer confidence

Liz Martinez, sommelier and director of beverage service at the Daxton Hotel, based in Birmingham, Mich., Says that while cork has come a long way in terms of quality, these days alternative closures definitely have their place in the industry. ‘wine shelf, especially with wines that require little or no aging time.

“I am quick to defend [alternative closures], especially for a younger wine that is meant to be drunk soon, ”she says. “There are many wines that are fresh and easy to drink from a young age. “

An alternative closure that Martinez says is not played enough at the moment is glass. “Not many people have seen them and are pleasantly surprised by the stylish presentation of these reusable closures,” she says. “It’s an expensive alternative, but fun and whimsical.”

Ferdy Mucerino, resident sommelier at online wine retailer DRINKS, notes that those who buy wine to drink at home are not necessarily as discouraged by alternative closings as before, as the perception of wine drinkers has evolved. But when shopping, determine if a bottle closure matches the style of wine you’re buying. “If you see a wine destined to age and notice that it has a cork or cap topped on, be a little careful and ask your sommelier or salesperson about the wine,” says -he.

But, says Vincent, not all consumers around the world are so ready to let go. She explains that while there has been an acceptance of alternative closings in North America and Australia, there are a few countries that are still the biggest cork fans. “There haven’t been any major problems with export markets except those with a more traditional approach, like Asia,” she said, noting that the French, too, remain attached to natural corks. . “Synthetic corks are now well accepted for some ‘nice’ whites, rosés and reds, but screw caps are still considered to be of poor quality for wines, while their keeping qualities are very good,” she says.

Flavor explosion

But what happens with wines that require aging? Will an alternative closure hold up as well as a cork, or better? Will it have an impact on the flavor of the wine, damaging the beauty inside the bottle?

Bistagne says he hasn’t seen any impact on the flavor of his wines but isn’t too sure if there’s a noticeable change overall. “For me, since I changed, I haven’t seen any change in the general profile of my wines compared to the previous vintage that I closed with natural corks,” he says, conceding that some of his colleagues have noticed changes and therefore use different closures for different styles of wine.

Cass says he’s very much in favor of an alternative solution when it comes to aging wines. Since cork is a living organism, certain factors can impact the flavor of the wine, making it inconsistent from year to year or, in some cases, not even drinkable. “Studies have shown that wines age better [in alternative closures]. Cork is a natural product, so it is inconsistent in the amount of oxygen that enters an aging bottle. This can lead to poor aging of some bottles, ”he says.

According to Sterling Kragten, winemaker for Cass Winery, screw-corked wines aren’t always meant to be drunk young and can always be aged. These corks simply offer more uniformity in the aging and keeping of the wines. Cellar-worthy screw-top wines have the added benefit of significantly reduced oxidation, and therefore less bottle variation and deterioration.

But, since many of these alternative closures let in much less oxygen than those closed with cork, they can benefit from the time spent in a jug. “Since we have been using ArdeaSeal, I think it is even more important, because due to the almost perfect closure, the wines have to be aerated to“ open ”them, explains Bistagne. “Of course, in a restaurant, it is not possible to open a bottle so early, but the sommeliers have the techniques to prepare a wine to be tasted in a short time,” he explains.

Nomacorc is a sustainable alternative to cork
Credit: Vinventions

Pop the cap

However, cork remains one of the most universal symbols in the world of wine. In fact, it is still the most widely used closure. Between 2010 and 2020, sales of finished cork wine cases among the top 100 premium brands rose 97%, compared to a mere 6% increase for alternative closures, according to a Nielsen survey conducted for APCOR.

Consumer perception is one of the reasons why cork can still be king. Sippers continue to maintain the perception of cork as a premium packaging material. But, says Martinez, alternative closures tend to pique diners’ interest instead of dissuading them from a bottle. “I wouldn’t say a guest mocks or sends back a bottle for having a Stelvin stopper or a composite cork stopper. However, it’s almost always a topic of conversation, ”she says.

But Mucerino notes that while alternate closures have their place, there’s just something about popping a cork that brings an air of sophistication to the table. “I love the pop sound that a cork makes, its texture and its smell, especially when it comes from a very old bottle,” he says. “Having said that, I also like the practicality and purity of wines with screw caps and synthetics.”

Overall, wine growers and sommeliers feel that there is room in the market for all types of closings, as long as the wine is still delicious. “The different types of closure should not be opposed, but seen as complementary. Each of them has advantages and limitations, ”explains Vincent.

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