Corks vs. Screw Caps 

In a trend that's becoming more and more prevalent, Argyle Winery recently switched from cork to the Stelvin screw cap. While some wineries use the twist and click closure just for their lower-end wines, or for aromatic offerings like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, Argyle has committed to metal tops for their entire lineup. Craig Eastman, their national sales rep, recently came to town, in part to help explain why the new commitment to Stelvin.

Anyone who has experienced a "corked" bottle of wine should need no explanation, but some people still prefer corks. Many cite the romance and ritual inherent in popping a cork. Still others argue that cork closures let the wine breathe, allowing it to evolve and improve with age, something the air-tight metal cap might prevent. But Eastman doubts that and he related an interesting experience as evidence.

He belongs to a group of top Oregon winemakers who have made it their mission to improve the quality of their state's Chardonnay. They get together once a month and when Eastman hosted the meeting, he tried a little experiment. They tasted eight Chardonnays, identities concealed, with one little twist. Two of the Chards were the same wine, Argyle's 2001 Nuthouse, one bottled with a cork, one with a screw cap. The screw cap finished in everyone's top three; the cork version ranked near the bottom.

Thanks to Eastman's generosity, we were able to set up a similar experiment with our tasting panel. We tried four different bottles of the 2001 Argyle Nuthouse Chardonnay, two cork, two screw cap. The bottles were decanted, identities concealed and panel members were kept in the dark as to what we were doing. The results were revealing.

Everyone found the wines to be similar in taste, thinking they might be different barrels of a wine from the same vineyard, or perhaps from different vintages. When asked to pick the wines that were most alike, nearly everyone correctly paired screw cap with screw cap, and cork with cork. But more importantly, five of the seven panelist preferred the Stelvin versions, finding them to have better balance, better fruit, and what's most interesting, more complexity, a characteristic that typically comes with age.

For my part, I originally pegged the wines finished with cork as being the screw cap version. They had an initial hit of bright citrus fruit that tricked me. But with time in the glass the fruit changed, becoming more like bitter lemon peel than fresh fruit. On the other hand, the wine bottled under a screw cap evolved in the glass, revealing layers of soft peach and buttery lemon, flavors that were missing from the cork-enclosed wines. So you can keep the pop of the cork if you want, but make mine the romantic click of a metal cap.

This Week's Panel: Fawn Caveney, Tastevin; Jeff Crockett, Idaho Wine Merchant; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Idaho Wine Merchant; Kevin Settles, Bardenay; Leslie Young, Spirit Distributing.

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