Does a plastic cork make for a lousy wine?
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.
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:
- 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?
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).