Wine has been a part of human civilisation for millennia. In China, grapes and rice were mixed and fermented as early as 9,000 years ago. The first winery is thought to be more than 6,000 years old, discovered in the Areni-1 cave complex in Armenia complete with a wine press, fermentation vats, and storage jars.
So, for thousands of years, winemakers have had decide on how best to store and distribute the wine they made.
The ancient Armenians used kvevris – huge egg-shaped earthenware containers sealed with beeswax.
A thousand years later, the Phoenicians transported and stored Egyptian wine amphorae – smaller ceramic jugs lined with beeswax. When the Romans met the Gauls (in modern-day France), they saw the Gauls transporting beer in wooden barrels and began to use these to store and distribute their wines – the abundance of oak in Europe made it the wood of choice.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that glass bottles began to be used. Originally, they were glass versions of amphorae and not sealed. In the 1820s, bottles began to be fashioned into the style used today and ... they needed stoppers. Cork was found to be ideal.
In 1858, John Landis Mason revolutionized food preservation with his screw cap jar (the Mason Jar) which was later refined by Dan Rynalds for whiskey bottles. In the 1950s, French company Le Bouchage Mecanique developed a beverage screwcap and was commissioned by Yalumba winery’s Production Manager, Peter Wall, in 1964 to produce a wine bottle specific screw cap.
And, for the 45 years since, a debate has raged: cork vs screw cap.
Today, the majority of Australian and New Zealand wine is screw capped, although many export markets equate screw caps with cheap wines and therefore have lower acceptance of it.
Originally the debate centered on two arguments: corks are better because they breathe vs screwcaps are better because they don’t risk cork taint. But, since then the technical production of both cork and screw cap closures have improved dramatically. Modern screwcaps emulate the cork breathing process with oxygen ingress functionality. Poor production quality of corks (especially in the 1980s) meant up to 10% of all cork sealed wines were susceptible to cork taint – caused by the reaction of the wine with trichloroanisole (a substance sometimes found in cork bark). But, this has largely been eliminated with high quality cork manufacturers using sensor machines to analyse corks on the production line and remove any potential bad corks.
So, if good cork no longer taints and good screw caps can now breathe – what is the difference?
One of the greatest appeals of the screw cap is functionality. They’re easy to open and even easier to reseal, meaning wine can be enjoyed over a longer time period (like the Prosperitas 2019 Limestone Coast Sauvignon Blanc). They also eliminate bottle variation: two of the same bottles, under the same type of screw cap will taste the same as one another when opened – even if cellared for years.
While predictability is a benefit to some consumers - it is a disappointment for many others. As wine matures at different rates with every individual cork, it means every single bottle is unique. Every bottle, even of the same wine, becomes its own discovery experience for the drinker as the slight variations in cork age every bottle at a different rate. Plus, centuries of history bring both tradition and a sense of theatre to the cork. Opening a bottle becomes almost ceremonial rather than simply functional, particularly when traditionally waxed (like the Prosperitas 2017 McLaren Vale Shiraz).
In the end, it all comes down to context and personal preference. Screw caps for convivence, corks for tradition and ceremony.