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Wrestling with the great wine debate of our age: Corks versus screw caps is put to ultimate test

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Natural corks used to be the only way you could judge a good bottle of wine, but times have changed. Courtesy of Mark Gmur Facebook
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Ah, springtime in Texas. When thoughts turn to . . . well, not love exactly, but wine. But who doesn’t love wine? In particular the dozens of wine festivals that abound in the Lone Star State.

And several of them include the word Uncorked in the title. Which makes sense since natural corks used to be the only way you could judge a good bottle of wine.

Certainly we all remember the days when a screw cap was only found on a fruity bottle of Boone’s Farm an underage drinker conned someone with a real ID into buying at a convenience store for them. Not that I would have any real knowledge of that.

But today more and more wines are bottled with screw caps. Including one of my favorite whites, the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. It’s a delightfully crisp white with a just a hint of fruit. It’s served at a couple of local restaurants I frequent, I always ordered it at the old Alto in West Ave which will soon house the new Del Frisco’s Grille, set to open March 16. Don’t know if they’ll offer the Oyster Bay wine, but there’s still Frank’s Americana Revival, which has it.

 Sure, there is a mystique about popping a cork on a fine bottle of wine, but it’s easier and often better to just twist and pour. 

Last time I was there the waiter brought the bottle and opened it, poured a tasting of it and then settled it in a wine bucket after pouring full glasses. We chatted briefly about corks versus screw caps and he commented that today the topper doesn’t indicate the quality.

And I agree. Unless you’re collecting high priced vintage wines, screw caps can actually be better.

First, they’re easier to open. I can’t tell you how many times I struggled at home to open a cork and then had it break still half in the bottle. And then you have to dig it out and strain the wine because there are bits of cork floating in the liquid. Plus they actually close up better than trying to re-stuff a cork into an opened bottle.

Sure, there is a mystique about popping a cork on a fine bottle of wine, but it’s easier and often better to just twist and pour. At least at home if you don’t have a sommelier uncorking it for you.

Wine Science

Natural corks have been used in spirit bottles since the 1600s when a Benedictine monk called Dom Perignon started using them to seal his sparkling wine bottles. Over the centuries cork has been the stopper of choice for wines but due to price hikes and occasional cork contamination other means have come into widespread use.

And now there’s a new study going on at the University of California Davis, started last year, to evaluate corks, synthetic corks and screw caps. The team, including a wine chemist, a medical radiologist and a biomedical engineer, are evaluating 600 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc being stored in a temperature-controlled wine cellar at 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Each of the bottles will be tested for darkening in wine color at three-month intervals during the 12-month study.

 Frankly, I buy wine and drink it shortly thereafter. So I go for wine I like and wine that I can easily open, hence the screw caps. 

Earlier research in Australia has demonstrated that the color of white wine is a reliable indicator of the degree of oxidation. This summer they will begin taste testing the wines to determine if drinkers can discern a difference.

The idea isn’t to declare a winner.

"Ultimately, when all of the data are in, we won’t be declaring that one type of closure is superior to another," wine chemist Andrew Waterhouse says. "Rather we’ll be giving winemakers information about the variability of each type so that they can determine which is most appropriate for use in bottling their wines."

Apparently different types of stoppers can affect oxidation, color and taste over time. And while this is a very scientific study, you can try your own tests at home.

That’s assuming you can store the various wines at a climate-controlled temperature for several months.

Frankly, I buy wine and drink it shortly thereafter. So I go for wine I like and wine that I can easily open, hence the screw caps. Although I need to get an easy-to-use corkscrew because I’ve just discovered a corked bottle of Mer Soleil Silver, a wonderful 2011 Chardonnay that is like drinking butter.

It'll be worth the effort.

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