Chafe, Australian wine research scientist who has now retired from the
CSIRO, has sent the following thoughts on the likely effects of using
screwcaps on wines designed for bottle maturation.
defect, ‘corked’ wine has prompted a number of winemakers to employ
Stelvin [screw-] caps or plastic corks. These ‘artificial’ closures
obviate corked wine and have the further advantage of keeping the wine
fresher over long periods. However, their ability to ensure that wine
matures in bottle in the normal way has been questioned. The reason for
this has not been explored, although the nature of wine maturation in
bottle and the anatomy of cork could well provide the answer.
Cork comprises the periderm of the cork oak, Quercus suber,
and is composed of cells with cell walls of inordinately low
permeability. The spaces enclosed by the cell walls, the cell lumina,
are ‘vacant’ but must contain gas of some sort, probably air, and it is
here that speculations may be made.
is fairly common to find in old wines a level of ullage in the bottle
significantly greater than that normally seen in young wines. The usual
explanation for this is that the cork has leaked, perhaps under the
influence of too much heat at some stage in the wine's development.
are times, however, when there is little or no evidence of leaking when
the capsule is removed, yet the ullage may be significant. Some suggest
that small volumes of air migrate along the cork-glass interface which,
as well as contributing to the maturation process, allows the ullage
space to enlarge. But if the bottle has been lying on its side, any air
entering this interface would inevitably be replaced by wine and, as
has been postulated here, there is no evidence of leaking.
There is another possibility. Examination of the cork in old wines will often reveal that the bottom part, i.e.
that abutting the wine, is extensively saturated. And, sometimes,
almost the entire cork can be so described. Although cork is regarded
as impermeable, it is only comparatively so and, given sufficiently
long exposure, will absorb liquid. In turn, the absorption of wine by
the cork means that the ullage must increase, thereby producing the
effect often observable in older wines.
the bottle, for the cork cells to take up wine they must give up the
gas in their lumina, and it is this gas which is ultimately absorbed by
the wine. As the gas is probably air, an explanation is provided for
the gradual maturation of wine in bottle, via access to oxygen in the
air, without resorting to the extreme improbability of air passing
through the cork from the outside. And it provides the reason why wine
sealed in bottles by impermeable Stelvin caps or plastic corks show
little or retarded maturation.
non-cork closures will protect the wines from becoming ‘corked’, if the
normal development of wine in bottle is the objective, cork may be
still the best sealant. And until the problem of cork-taint is finally
solved, the occasional corked bottle amongst the finely matured may
continue to be the necessary evil of long-term cellaring.