Which Wine Cork to Choose?



August 24, 2009 - Pays To Live Green
There is a heated debate in the wine industry and among consumers as to which wine cork does the best job in preserving our wine. Synthetic stoppers and twist tops are two options becoming more popular because many wineries feel that they are superior in preserving the quality of wine.  Traditional wine corks on the other hand are much more environmentally friendly and are still the leading wine stopper.  So which is the better stopper?

The Cork Industry

Cork is an extremely sustainable material because it is harvested by stripping the bark off of cork oak trees, leaving them unharmed.  For centuries, dating back almost 4,000 years, cork has been used for many purposes and even started to be used in other forms like flooring.  Up until the 1970’s there has been somewhat of a monopoly for cork as the only type of wine stopper.  A complaint for years with cork wine stoppers is that a small portion (around 1%) of wines have been tainted, containing a substance called TCA.  This leaves the wine with a horrible odor, though it can still be drinkable without harm.  Cork is not the only reason for the the build up of TCA in wines, but has received the majority of criticism for it ruining so many wines.  The biggest issue with cork is that it had such a monopoly that it allowed them to let their quality slip.

The Rise of Alternatives

When synthetic plastic stoppers started to come out, the cork industry was skeptical and felt they would not last like cork has.  Well, it turns out that they were wrong since synthetic and twist cap wine stoppers have come on strong and are heavily being used in today’s market.  Not only can they more cost effective, but also have lower occurrences of TCA in wines.  Both alternatives are not perfect and have faults of their own.  Synthetic stoppers tend to let the wine be exposed too much to oxygen and thus not age as well.  Screwcaps do a better job at protecting from oxygen, but allow for reduction to occur in the wine leading to an unpleasant odor.  Screwcaps have grown heavily though because they are much more consistent and allow for every bottle to age similarly. They are coming close to taking over synthetic stoppers as the largest used alternative stopper.  There are environmental concerns with using alternatives to cork though because it is such a sustainable materials.  Screwcaps are made from aluminum and synthetic stoppers are made from plastic, neither material sustainable though can be recycled.

The Future

With a smaller market share, many of the major cork manufacturers are now producing much higher quality cork wine stoppers that have far lower occurrence of wine taint.  Millions have been invested to ensure that the quality is much greater than it was in the past.  The problem is that now people are wary of using cork stoppers because of worries about taint.  The good news is that the majority of wineries still use cork as wine stoppers.  The cork industry is largely dependent on stoppers and would take a huge hit if everybody switched over to using alternatives.
The issue I have with the cork industry is that they began worrying too much about profits and less about quality that they really hurt themselves.  Let’s hope they learned their lesson and not only make cork a sustainable option to choose from, but one that produces the highest quality wines.  At the moment, there is no true winner in the wine stopper business as there is no perfect stopper.  In terms of the environment, cork is clearly the leader in the wine stopper market.