Does a plastic cork make for a lousy wine?

by Andrea Karim on 26 October 2007 17 comments

I remember the first time my mother opened a bottle of wine that featured a plastic cork. She gasped audibly; the family gathered in the kitchen, where we took turns poking at this odd, pliable plastic cylinder on the kitchen counter. We all knew, instinctively, that this was an INFERIOR bottle of wine, because it was corked with plastic and not... you know, cork. How unromantic! How untraditional! How... eh, pour me another glass, will you?

Since that fateful day, I've opened my fair share (OK, more than my fair share) of wine bottles that are corked with plastic. Or, more recently, with screw tops! Alright, I admit it - I've had wine from a box. The shame!

The truth is, despite the fact that I have a very strong sense of smell, I haven't noticed a difference between naturally and synthetically corked wine (there are some wine experts, or sommeliers, who claim that they can taste the difference between a wine that is sealed with a syntehtic cork and one sealed with a natural cork). My inability to differentiate might be because I'm sort of a lush, or maybe because there really ISN'T a big difference, performance-wise, between traditional corks and plastic ones. Or maybe it's because the synthetic corks are inert.

Why the switch to plastic corks/screwtops?

Nobody has a single, definite answer as to why certain wineries have moved away from natural corks - that is, corks made from the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows mostly in Portugal and Spain in lovely, arid forests. Some people have claimed that there is a shortage of cork available for wine production, as new wine regions are popping up all over the world (twenty years ago, if you had mentioned that you had a great Australian/South African/Peruvian red with dinner, you would have been involuntarily committed). Cork is also increasingly being used in other applications as well, such as flooring.

So, the demand for cork has increased. Even desirable wines are turning to "unnatural" corking methods. According to CorkFacts.com, there is enough cork growing in Portugal to last the wine-making world another 100 years. This fact is often quoted, probably in an attempt to sound reassuring, but to me, 100 years sounds like a very short amount of time.

The most oft-recited reason for switching to synthetic corkage is that natural cork allows roughly 10% of corked bottles to go bad (also known as "cork taint", or simply "corked"). A fungus that is found in cork bark may be the culprit for the loss of many hundreds of thousands of bottles annually. Synthetic corkage doesn't carry the same risk of fungal infection, so wines can not only last longer, but you don't lose a huge portion of your vintage to mold. So, from a vintner's standpoint, plastic corks are a very frugal item, indeed.

Still undecided is if plastic corks allow for adequate aging of red wines.

So, plastic cork means it's a cheap wine, then?

Not necessarily. I've opened a few expensive bottles of wine that have featured plastic corks. When I started doing my cork research, I was hoping that synthetic corks were the key to finding the most frugal, sensible wine available. It turns out that you can't judge a wine by its corkage.

There are a plenty of people who likely feel that synthetic corks take the artistry out of wine-making, or that synthetic corks are indicative of a cheap, mass-produced wine, but as it turns out, you can't really tell which wines are going to feature synthetic corks until you actually open them.

My absolute favorite wine in the whole world uses natural cork. Hell, Charles Shaw uses natural cork. So, there's a mental barrier for me to jump over when I open a bottle of wine with a synthetic cork. The difference is likely purely mental. As Treehugger points out:

"Natural corks have proven themselves over the years but it’s the cultural resonance that extends even to the novice drinkers. This is something that the traditional cork industry has capitalized on and has taken huge strides to fight back. U.S. cork importers have created a rigorous testing system to weed out tainted cork while the Portuguese cork industry has launched an extensive $8 million campaign to commend the natural cork."

Besides, you can't tell what kind of cork is in the bottle when you buy it, since the cork is usually covered by foil or wax. And anyway, I tend to buy bottles based on the label design. Don't laugh - you do it, too.

I'm curious as to how Wise Bread readers feel about this: we're a frugal group, to be sure, but I get the idea that many of our readers value quality and craftsmanship over pure, industrial reliability.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Environmentally, what's the deal?

There are environmentalists who argue that allowing screwtop and synthetic corks to take over the world of wine-making will be detrimental to the cork forests in Portugal, which are home to may rare animals. It's odd to think of cork forests, which are more like orchards than forests, as wild habitats, but in truth, they're probably a combination of the two: a place for wild animals and a working forest. Some activitst posit that the loss of the natural cork industry would mean the loss of many thousands of European jobs, as well.

Besides being decidedly unsexy, plastic corks are... well, they're plastic. Plastic is so great in so many ways, and so terrible in many other ways. Tree Hugger and Wise Geek both proffer that one can recycle plastic corks, although I've never seen any evidence of this in my area. Natural cork is easily composted (or saved for the sake of memory), but plastic corks... I can't figure out what to do with them.

I'm prone to advocating for the natural cork approach, even though the thought of wasted wine due to fungus makes me die a little inside. Cork trees do grow in Portugal and Spain, which are dry Mediterranean climates. Who's to say we can't expand cork production to other ares of the world with similar climates? Parts of the east San Francisco Bay Area and North Africa come to mind almost immediately.

How do Wise Bread readers feel about this issue, if you've given it any thought? Do you care, one way or another, about how your wine is corked? Are you a cork snob? A two-buck-chuck swiller? A boxed-wine kind of wino? Do you feel strongly enough about the issue to boycott a wine based on its corkage. or is it a null issue for you?

Interesting cork facts:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/frenchy/30607033/

  • Corks are made from bark that has been stripped from the tree trunk (see above). The tree is not damaged, and can regrow all of its bark every 9 years or so. However, the average cork tree only lives 150 years.
  • Wine was originally made in casks that were "sealed" with a layer of olive oil to keep the wine from coming into contact with the air.
  • Natural cork recycling is common in Australia and Europe.
  • Wine corks are coated with a thin layer of resin or wax to prevent rotting while a wine ages.
  • Many European beer bottles are sealed with cork. So are some home-brewed soft drinks.
  • You can buy cork from India, apparently.
  • Natural cork has a Poisson's ratio of nearly zero. And yes, I knew what Poisson's ratio was before I wrote this. Also, I like Firefly. Why yes, I am single. Why?

Fun facts

This BBC article has a wide range of information about wine corks, with only a hint (OK, a big hint) of anti-environmental bias in favor of the plastic corks. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to read about great things to do with leftover corks (the first person who can tell me where the line "Why is the cork on the fork?" wins my undying admiration).

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphunden/

Additional photo credit: Cork tree
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Myscha Theriault's picture

You are too funny. Love the flavor of the piece. As for natural versus synthetic, well I have to admit when I actually dish out for the nicer quality bottled stuff I definitely take note if the cork is not natural. Although, as you pointed out, this may just be a matter of conditioning. I usually talk myself out of feeling like it's cheap wine if the cork is synthetic, but I have to admit, my first instinct is at the very least a "note to self". Anyone else?

Guest's picture
LeEtta

This is a great article, and very enjoyable to read. I've always figured that if you really like to drink wine, you should drink whatever tastes good to you regardless of the packaging or what others may say about it. Though, I have to admit, those plastic corks always catch me a little off guard.

Oh, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels includes the line "why is the cork on the fork." Hopefully I'm not remembering wrong, it's been a really long time, and I'll be mortified if I'm wrong.

Guest's picture
Val

I really am a two buck chuck fan, but it's actually closer to 3 1/2 buck chuck in ohio--but who can complain about that! I fell in love with Bocce Red Zin, only to learn that Bocce has since gone out of business. I was able to rescue the last case from World Market. I'm still heart-broken. That kind actually had the weird rubber-like cork. I don't know what to compare it to...maybe it is actually a form of plastic.

Guest's picture
Guest

It depends on the quality of the cork. If you use synthetic corks you run a really low risk of getting a cork infection - you know that mouldy/pharmaceutical taste that sometimes comes with the wine.

Personally I prefer natural corks - they are a lot nicer, but other that that the synthetic ones do have their advantages.

Guest's picture
Tanya

Heeeeey. I knew what it was and like Firefly, and I'm not single... (then again, I'm female, that probably helps.)
Nice article-- I tend to like non-cork bottles better because I find them easier to open, and then I get mocked less pre-opening and can enjoy more fully.

Guest's picture
Chris R.

Another reason is because the synthetic corks don't go bad... so you can store that one bottle of wine for hundreds of years, and you shouldn't have to replace the cork.

Andrea Karim's picture

You are correct, LeEtta! Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it is. Thanks for reading, everyone! I had forgotten this while I was writing the post, but one of my favorite moments on TV was when Steve Martin appeared in The Muppet Movie as an insolent waiter serving Miss Piggy and Kermit.

They select a wine that he disdains (I think he says it's from Idaho or something, which back then was a weird concept), and when he opens the bottle, he asks "Would you like to smell the bottlecap?". 

Guest's picture
Vixen

The idea of a wine bottle having a cork trelly is just society wanting to remain with the past way of doing things. I frequent a wine merchant regularly and have quite a penchant for good wines. Several I've come across have either the synthetic cork, or most likely, a screw top. I definetly prefer a screw top over all because it is FAR easier to open as a female. I've actually chipped the glass on a wine bottle before trying to pull out a cork. Or even better, expecting a man to do it and they can't!

See, converting to screw tops will save the pride of single bachelors.

Guest's picture

Ever since I read about the loss of cork forests and the loss of habitat and local jobs that they provide, I have been committed to purchasing wines with natural cork stoppers.

In fact, I wrote several posts about this issue on my blog, and am keeping an ongoing list of wines and what kind of stoppers they have, since it's impossible to tell before opening them:

http://www.fakeplasticfish.com/labels/wine.html

I find it ironic that people will use a material that is completely un-biodegradable, unrecyclable, and unsustainable (yeah, I'm talking about plastic) to save something that is completely biodegradable. This isn't just true for wine, but all kinds of produce. It's anathema to me that people will invest in those special green plastic produce bags (and yes, they are plastic) to keep some food from spoiling, and then end up with millions of plastic bags in landfills when the produce could have been composted.

Okay, maybe spoiled wine and spoiled produce are a waste of money on the front end, but the pollution from plastics bears a huge environmental cost that people need to consider in the overall picture.

Thanks for bringing up this issue.

Amy B. Scher's picture

Who knew? Makes you think before you drink.....

By the way, drinking wine out of a box isn't bad. You just have to rename it something sexy, like "box 'o wine." Then it sounds fancy. And hey, that's more for your money which is the theme of the site so you are right on target!

Great job Andrea!

Guest's picture
Math C.

The Only major difference between a plastic corok or a natural one is that the plastic is absolutely air tight your botle will age diferently and te same batch of wine over a few decade will taste a bit difference but most wine get to there maturity "age"
in a lapse of time to short to truly see a big difference so i`d say get use to the plastic it not so bad ;)and it good for the forest

Guest's picture
Barbara

I work a couple nights at a week at a wine bar in my city (the only one of it's kind actually, without being a steak house or something comprable), and it floors me when I get customers who don't want to drink a bottle I'm serving them because it doesn't have a natural cork. I have to go through the explaination each time that simply because the cork is different, or the bottle has a screw cap, doesn't mean it's a bad bottle. One time, I actually had a guy refuse to drink (and pay for) a $70 bottle because it had a synthetic cork. *Sigh* While we were mad at the guy, we got over it when we decided the only thing to do was enjoy it ourselves!

Guest's picture
zoom

I have no biases with respect to synthetic or natural corks. However, I won't shell out good money for a bottle of wine in the Vintages section if it's got a screw cap. I grew up thinking that the distinction between a decent bottle of wine and a cheapo bottle was cork/screwcap, and I don't think I can change that now.

I loved your line about choosing your wine by the label design, by the way.

Guest's picture
Karen

As a former resident of northern California wine country, I have definitely consumed my fair share of wine, including some incredible, award-winning vintages that came in bottles with synthetic corks. The only problem I have with synthetic corks is that they're sometimes harder to remove than the natural versions.

Guest's picture
allen

I never bother to look at what kind of cap the wine has. One time, my friend & I were opening a bottle (ok, the 3rd of the evening...), and we were trying to figure out why the screw wasn't working... when we figured out it was a metal screw-cap! Ha!

Guest's picture
allen

I also love Firefly, and am also single... ;) hehe

Guest's picture
Carolyn

I spent an hour trying to REMOVE the plastic cork from the wine opener to open other bottles at my dinner party. I even tried to melt it, but that, too, was impossible. I finally had to give up. Maybe the opener is inferior, but it is one that I can easily use in normal circumstances. I am soooo upset that I am writing to Casella Winery in Yenda, Australia to express my complaint. So there, plastic cork bottlers!