“Which is better: screw cap or cork?” someone recently asked me. Immediately I knew what was on the line. My entire job revolves around opening wine; I have probably opened thousands of bottles for strangers, friends and customers. If all wine bottles were as easy to open as a can of Coca-Cola, you wouldn’t really need a sommelier standing at your table.
Many wine drinkers are afraid of threatening the ritual, of making the sacred ordinary, as if we're one bottle of Caymus or Meiomi or Beringer white zinfandel away from ruining the world of wine forever and preventing people from drinking all the "good" wines in the world—as if those wines are somehow lesser because they are more dependent on brand identity than on terroir.
Thousands of years ago, wine wasn't stored in bottles, but in amphorae that weren't sealed. Even if you were a slave in ancient Rome, you were allocated wine. And sure, it was grape pomace that had already been pressed multiple times and mixed with water—but wine was still your right. Most people in human history didn't drink wine that was expensive and aged for many years. They drank wine because it was safer than water.
Fast-forward a few centuries after Roman slaves slaked their thirst, English coal-fired glass bottles changed wine into something that could be stored and shipped and aged for much longer. And when the British began sealing wine with cork stoppers from Portugal (as many containers for medicine were also sealed), they realized they could age it for decades, and wine became more than just trade or medicine or something to drink because water was diseased. It could be a treasured work of art.
In some ways, cork is uniquely perfect for sealing wine. Cork is made of a honeycomb of cells and wax that can be compressed but remain flexible—perfect for forming a tight seal in a bottle neck. It also allows a slight amount of oxygen into the wine, which, over a long period of time, helps the aging process. If wine is exposed to too much oxygen, it oxidizes rapidly; too little oxygen and it becomes reductive. Oxidized wine tastes tired and loses its structure. Reductive wine tastes like rotten eggs. A sulfide fingerprint, created by yeasts post-fermentation, gets trapped in the bottle without the presence of oxygen—a common potential flaw in screw cap (or Stelvin) seals. Both closures have advantages, and both can cause flaws.
Stelvin will probably never eliminate cork. The right wines aged under cork will age beautifully and develop both a structural integration and a complex bouquet that was not present in youth. But not all wines need to be aged for decades. Some only need a few years, because they'll be sitting on the shelves of a restaurant or grocery store. Some only need a few hours, because you have a dinner party or you need a housewarming gift or you're going on a picnic in a small town somewhere new and you didn't pack a corkscrew and you'll be able to get to it that much faster with a simple twist.
Here are a few of my favorite Stelvin-sealed wines:
Nikolaihof, Grüner Veltliner, "Federspiel," Wachau 2013
This biodynamic wine is produced from grapes that were left to ripen on the vine longer before being fermented to an impressive level of total dryness. It's a labor of love from nose to finish. Drink if you love small family-owned wineries with an unwavering commitment to sustainability.
Schlossgut Diel, Pinot Noir, "Rosé de Diel," Nahe 2016
This historic winery, in possession of many great vineyard sites, is managed with care and attention by Caroline Diel, and is probably in the middle of its best vintage yet of rosé. The 2016 Diel is not to be missed. It is a fabulous, mineral-tinged, charmingly summery rosé, yet has structure and substance. Drink if you love flawless style and meticulous craftsmanship.
Chehalem, Pinot Noir, "Three Vineyard," Willamette Valley 2013
Normally I wouldn't recommend the same grape twice, but the Diel is delicious. If you are genuinely curious about screw caps, Chehalem has long been committed to research and education regarding the effects of Stelvin on wine. Winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry has been studying screw caps for 22 years, and his "Three Vineyard" pinot noir is far from an amateur effort. Drink if you love empowering wine drinkers through education.
Two Hands, Cabernet Sauvignon, "Sexy Beast," McLaren Vale 2014
Wines of all varieties and sizes can perform admirably under screw cap, and this cabernet sauvignon is no exception. A nod must be made to the Southern Hemisphere's role both in popularizing the closure (thanks to the 2001 New Zealand screw cap initiative which sought to use the screw cap and educate wine drinkers to its benefits) and in fact creating it in the first place (an Australian winemaker named Peter Wall, of Yalumba, contracted a French company to produce it for him in 1964). Drink if you love a historical precedent for innovation and quality control.