A Twist on the Aging Question

Screw caps would reduce the risk of aging red wines
Feb 24, 2014

When will the wine world come to its senses about how wine ages under screw caps? My good friend James Laube, who champions twist-offs (as he prefers to call them) didn't mention the possibilities in his recent tirades against the risks of aging wine too long. But I will.

Like Jim, I've always said I would rather drink a wine on its way up, to beat the odds of losing its magic if it tires in the bottle. To that, perhaps, we should add, "especially for wines bottled under corks."

Corks are maddening things. When they do their job perfectly, nothing preserves a wine better as it goes through its transformation in the bottle from a young wine into maturity. Unfortunately, perfect corks are uncommon. Tasting the wines within a single case of 12 bottles a decade or so down the line reveals, essentially, 12 different wines. Most of the differences might be subtle, and acceptable, but several bottles usually will be outliers—some perfect, others affected by some level of cork taint or oxidation.

That doesn't happen with twist-off caps. Every bottle is virtually identical. The industry seems to have accepted that these closures are fine for wines to be consumed within a year or two but not for long-term aging. My experience has been much different.

In Australia I have often had occasion to compare bottles of the same wine, five years or older, one sealed with a cork, the other with a twisty. Most of the time, tasted blind, the screw top tasted better: fresher, more complete and complex. Sometimes the cork tasted slightly better, but not enough to be able to tell without a careful comparison. And, of course, cork taint had skunked its share of bottles.

This tells me that there is no downside to aging wines sealed with a twist-off, and the upside is obvious. No cork-tainted time bombs ticking away in the cellar.

Now, there are those who don't like their aged wines to taste so much like fruit. I suppose they are accustomed to the fruit character disappearing over time. In fact, the best bottles aged under cork, the ones that make a perfect (or close to perfect) seal, are the ones that retain the most fruit character. Just like bottles aged under twisties.

In my tasting room today when I sit down to review a range of Australian reds, I look at a sea of bottles, spiral necks protruding from most of the paper bags. I am a happy guy because it means I don't have to be constantly on the lookout for signs of cork taint. I can just concentrate on the wine.

Ah, but what about other problems? Many who oppose screw caps on fine wine worry about reduction, stinky smells that can arise in wines that haven't seen enough air in their lifetimes. Take it from someone who tastes more than a thousand bottles of screw-capped wine per year: I find more reduction in the cork-finished wines than in those under spiral.

There are other alternative closures. Glass stoppers, which look beautiful, aren't quite as reliable as screw tops. Technical corks, made from finely ground cork treated to remove any precursors to cork taint then glued together, seem to have a very low, maybe negligible incidence, of cork taint. But there's still the issue of oxidation if they don't make a perfect seal.

For me, either option is better than a punched-out cork. We have the best track record, however, for screw caps, which have now been in widespread use on fine wines for about a decade. I have Pinot Noirs in my cellar from Oregon and New Zealand that are coming up on their 10th anniversaries. Every one I have opened has shown the extra nuances we look for in older wines without losing their essential fruit at the core. Every one.

Heck, the reason screw-cap closures started showing up in high-quality wines was the discovery of how well even ordinary wines did over time. According to Tyson Stelzer's excellent 2003 book, Screwed for Good: The Case for Screw Caps on Red Wine, a forgotten stack of 25-year-old everyday wines sealed with these closures surprised researchers in Australia. They found the contents still fresh and drinkable. If a wine meant to be consumed within a year or two could last this long under these closures, they wondered, how well could better wines do? A couple of decades and many trials later, the answer, emphatically, is very well, thank you very much.

The kicker for me is that twist-off caps do a better job of preserving a wine's expression of terroir. Those elements that reflect the place where the grapes grew to make the wine are muted by even a low level of cork taint and amplified by freshness. For me that's game, set and match.

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