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Corks Versus Screwcaps, Northern Italian Style

A recent tasting with Jermann throws new fodder into the great closure debate
Four Jermann bottlings, each bottled under both screwcap and cork, presented an eye-opening comparison.
Photo by: Alison Napjus
Four Jermann bottlings, each bottled under both screwcap and cork, presented an eye-opening comparison.

Posted: Jun 4, 2015 12:00pm ET

By Alison Napjus

In the world of wine closures, screwcaps may be winning the battle, but few would say they're winning the war. Screwcaps have gotten the cork industry to sit up and take notice: The closure is commonplace for value bottlings, whites and rosés, and regions such as Australia and New Zealand have embraced screwcaps almost as a whole. But among the world's greatest wines and wineries today, most use corks.

Perhaps screwcaps SHOULD be winning—and not for the reason you might think. Yes, I cringe just thinking of the scent of a badly corked bottle, and keeping wine away from potential TCA contamination has been a key selling point for screwcaps over the years. However, I suggest a more important point: They may actually be better for aging wine.

I recently tasted four wines from northeastern Italy's Jermann winery, which began experimenting with screwcaps in 2003 and now bottles about half its annual 75,000-case production under screwcap.

Owner Michele Jermann and general manager Edi Clementin shared three whites: the 2009 Pinot Grigio Venezia-Giulia, the 2005 Vintage Tunina (93 points, $74)—a Sauvignon Blanc- and Chardonnay-based blend—and the 2007 Dreams (93, $77), a Chardonnay. In addition, they poured one red, a Pinot Nero, the 2007 Red Angel on the Moonlight.

We tasted two glasses of each wine, not knowing which had been under cork or screwcap.

All of the wines, under both closures, showed very well-noteworthy in itself because the aging potential of high-quality Italian white wine is often overlooked. But for each pair, there was a clear winner, one wine that was obviously more vibrant and showed a greater range of flavor and complexity. The winner each time was … SCREWCAPS!

I didn't expect the difference between the two closures to be so pronounced. I doubt anyone would be disappointed with a cork-sealed bottle of these wines if they didn't try the screwcapped version alongside. But for me, the cork-closed versions offered a less-detailed, subtler range of flavors, and their more integrated structures suggested a mellowing, aging wine. For the red in particular, the fruit was still shining in the screw-capped Pinot Nero, while only the cork-closed bottling had begun to develop tertiary hints of loamy earth and mushroom.

To be fair, those nuances, created by the slow interaction between the wine and oxygen via the cork, may be exactly what some people are looking for.

But simply put, Jermann's choice of screwcaps, with the lowest level of oxygen permeability among Stelvin's three options, appeared to do a better job not just preserving a wine's youth but also allowing it to slowly evolve. Given my familiarity with Jermann's wines, it was clear that the screwcapped wines were not fresh-out-of-the-gate releases; they showed development and additional flavor range, yet still carried much of the vibrancy of a young wine. You might liken it to someone with the experience of a 40-year-old who looks 25. Who wouldn't want that facelift?

Perhaps screwcaps are only beneficial for short-term aging, and not the long haul. While commercial releases of high-end, screwcapped reds date to the late 1990s, without extremely aged examples, we can't yet form a complete picture. But the cobwebbed cellars of old are few and far between these days; today's collectors more commonly age wines up to 10 years (if at all!). As the closure gains wider acceptance, I am now eager to try additional older, screwcap-closed bottlings.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  June 5, 2015 10:39am ET
It surely must be unanimous by now. For quite a while, it seems to me, senior editors, contributors, others at Wine Spectator and readers alike have blogged and / or written articles disparaging cork closures; and with some, over and over again. In the absence of exculpatory reporting, perhaps this is deservedly so, or perhaps not.
Harboring such conviction, why not identify cork closure reviews with an “asterisk” to further warn readers of the perceived risk you believe they take when purchasing such wine?
Alison Napjus
New York, Ny —  June 5, 2015 1:09pm ET

You're right, closures get a lot of attention in the wine community. However, I certainly didn't mean to disparage cork as a closure, merely to share this illuminating tasting.

Your suggestion to identify wine reviews by their closures has merit, but many producers, Jermann included, bottle part of a wine's production under cork and part under screwcap, so that adds a wrinkle to any efforts to label a wine with a specific closure.

Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  June 5, 2015 9:37pm ET
I wonder if many high end wineries have privately bottled some of their wines under screwcap for internal comparisons. It would be exciting to read about the results if so.

I strongly support screwcaps, but I have seen bottle variation. I had an stunning bottle of the Greywacke 2012 Pinot (WS 92) from NZ, but 3 subsequent bottles were disappointing, missing most of the freshness.

Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA. USA —  June 7, 2015 5:53pm ET
In the last 5 years, I've never had a problem with a wine with a screwcap or a synthetic cork. I've had two bottles [both were very good Tuscan reds that I enjoy regularly] that went down the drain because they were undrinkable due to TCA. Screwcaps? synthetic? Anything that won't ruin a good bottle of wine.

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