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.