Natural corks are effective, sustainable and even romantic. Here’s why their reputation has been tainted, and why they’re making a comeback.
Cork vs. Screw Cap
Natural cork is a sustainable resource: It comes from cork-tree bark, which regenerates every 8 to 10 years. Yet natural cork has fallen a bit out of favor over the past 30 years as a growing number of producers switched to synthetic cork or screw caps. The problem is “cork taint,” contamination with a nasty compound called TCA that can ruin wines that have taken years to make. In recent years, however, winemakers have come to realize that synthetic cork and screw caps have their own set of issues. At the same time, cork manufacturers have devised effective new ways to wash bark to eliminate TCA, meaning fewer tainted (“corked”) bottles. That’s good news for winemakers as well as for sommeliers who are hopeless romantics about wine tradition: Cork is staging a comeback.
Screw Cap Switch-Up
Winemakers in Chablis aren’t exactly known as antiestablishment; they pretty much all use one grape (Chardonnay) and minimal oak, aiming for exceptional ageability. So it was big news in 2001 when Domaine Laroche, a fantastic producer, began using screw caps for all of its wines, even its premier cru bottlings. Recently, Laroche surprised Chablis yet again: Winemaker Gregory Viennois decided to switch back to cork, citing dramatic quality improvements.
If a cork looks less like a single punched-out piece than like the sole of a Birkenstock sandal, it’s probably a composite cork. Although composites come at a premium (often $1 apiece), more and more winemakers are using them because the method of grinding up natural cork, steam-washing the particles and re-forming them into the right shape nearly guarantees that none will have cork taint.
WINES TO BUY
Portugal, which produces half the world’s natural corks, also makes these great and affordable red blends.
2013 José Maria da Fonseca Periquita Original ($10)
The sandy soil of the Setúbal Peninsula, in the coastal southern part of Portugal, gives this wine a youthful vibrancy that makes it extremely food-friendly.
2011 Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz ($15)
The Symington family is best known for its port houses, like Graham’s and Dow’s. But its Douro-based project focuses on table wines, like this peppery, raspberry-scented one.
2013 Álvaro Castro DAC Tinto ($16)
For more than 30 years, Álvaro Castro (now with his daughter Maria) has been making wine using indigenous grapes from Portugal’s Dào region. This medium-bodied blend is vivid yet balanced.