Storing wine once the bottle has been opened

Opening a bottle of wine changes its taste dramatically over a few hours and accelerates in next day or two exponentially.  This is due to massively more air that the wine comes in contact with after opening as compared to the very little it has experienced while sealed and laid down in the cellar.

During the time in the bottle, only about 5 – 10 ml of air space exists in a 750 ml bottle of wine for the wine to mature by interacting with the air.  With cork, a few more ml seeps through each year (through evaporation of wine) to continue to help the wine mature.  If there is a cork problem, though, and a lot of air is leaking into the bottle, the wine will mature far too quickly and not be drinkable.  For this same reason, once opened and exposed to much more air, the bottle will become undrinkable after a few days.

Unless you are going to drink the entire bottle over several hours, you need to concern yourself with preventing as much air as possible from interacting with the wine to decelerate the ruin of the wine.  There are several ways of storing wine:

  • Stick the original cork back in to stopper the wine bottle (keeps wine good for about 1 – to 1.5 days)
  • Use a simple consumer manual rubber stopper and vacuum pump set to extract excess air from the bottle (keeps wine good for 2 – 3 days)
  • Use a commercial pump and storage 2-bottle set (keeps wine good for 4 – 6 days) 
  •  Use a carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon gas replacement system  that is completely closed sealed (keeps wine good for up to 2 – 3 weeks)

After decanting wine for the right period of time, it is important to get the wine back into a bottle and stopper it as soon as possible.  While several minutes to several hours (in most cases) of decanting will improve the wine, anything after that will only help the wine deteriorate and turn into vinegar.  To slow this process down to ensure you can finish the bottle of wine prior to it going off, you need to minimize its interaction with air to the least amount of time possible.

Every time you open the bottle again to pour another glass, you are letting new air into the bottle, and as the bottle of wine empties, the amount of new air introduced increases, which quickens the pace of deterioration.  Therefore, it is important to stopper the bottle immediately again once you have finished pouring to minimize any excess air in the bottle.  This is why vacuuming the air out and replacing it with a gaseous blend is the most effective way to keep wine fresh for several weeks.

If the cork is still intact or you still have the screw top after opening the bottle, you can use it to stopper the wine.  While there is no expense to this method, the wine will worsen overnight and not be as drinkable the following day, or at least certainly not drinkable by the second day following opening.  If the bottle has been left half empty overnight, you have introduced a lot of new air into the wine which will quickly deteriorate it.  This approach can be used successfully for keeping a bottle of wine fresh for several hours or maybe from afternoon until evening, but I never would use it to store a half-empty bottle overnight.  I use this approach when I have decanted a fine wine for several hours, then re-bottle it to bring to a restaurant within the next hour or so.

The most cost effective way to store wine and keep it drinkable for one or two more days is to use a vacuum pump and cork set.  These tend to cost around $20 – $25 for a pump and a few stoppers and you can buy more stoppers if required.  This uses a special artificial stopper with small holes and one-way openings.  The pump is used to extract as much air as possible and create a vacuum in the bottle.  This significantly reduces the amount of air in contact with the wine and slows the deterioration process, extending the life of the wine by another day or two.

I have a vacuum pump set and have found this to be great value.  For only $20 – $25, you will save many quarter- to half-bottles of wine for another day and over time this can mean keeping thousands of dollars of wine drinkable.  Since it is just my wife and I usually at home for dinner, we may not drink more than a half bottle or little more during any evening.  We will usually have two or three bottles opened at a time, as our mood changes or as we have a snack or meal.  Using the vacuum pump and stopper method keeps several bottles fresh and available to provide us with good choice.

Additionally, when we have larger dinner parties, we will have eight or ten bottles of wine we want to serve upon arrival, with each food course, and for after dinner.  But you are never sure how many people are going to be drinking (one night a friend who we did not know was pregnant was not drinking, for example), and we may have already decanted several of the finer wines, so we might have three or four partial bottles left over at the end of the night.  By using this vacuum pump, we can then keep and drink the partial bottles over the next few days.

The vacuum pump set is a great option for the money.  However, the technology is more limited than with the next higher up commercial model.  Sometimes the rubber stopper seal will be nudged (possibly even upon removal of the pump) and let air re-enter into the bottle.  (You can tell if this has occurred when you open the bottle and there is no popping of the vacuum.  If there is a definite vacuum breakage popping sound, then you know it was sealed properly.)  If this occurs, you should make sure to drink the rest of the wine right away, or you risk it going bad over another day.  If the seal has remained intact, you may be able to get another day of good drinking from the wine.  Unfortunately, there is really nothing you can do to determine if the seal is intact or not until you open it again.  I just try to be very careful to remove the pump from the stopper after pumping by lifting it straight up.  But the seal also may break sometime during the night based on the opening of the bottle.  Based on bottle type, there may be some small differences in the diameter of the bottle opening, causing the seal to be more fragile for wider bottle openings than for narrower ones.  Additionally, if there is some residual wine liquid on the neck where the stopper has been inserted, then there may be some slippage and the seal could break.

The next day or day after, you will have noticed some changes in the taste of the wine.  It is usually smoother (which can be a pleasant improvement if it was tight when you opened it), but you have usually lost some of the grape fullness of flavor.  Therefore, the wine might taste slightly less robust.  After a couple of days, it may even taste ‘dead’ or totally flat using the vacuum pump method of storage.

The next higher up option for wine storage after opening the bottle comes in a small refrigerated unit that has two compartments to hold two different bottles.  Each bottle has a pumping and extraction capability and for most models, each bottle can be stored at a standard white wine or red wine temperature.  Each compartment is set separately you can either store two whites, or two reds, or one of each at the right temperature.
This more commercial option cost between $500 – $700 based on the features and technology provided, but they all work basically the same.  They also require being placed close to an electric outlet.  This technology provides a better seal and air extraction system than the manual vacuum pump which is why it provides several more days of storage without noticeable change in the quality of the wine.  I have considered buying such a system, but I have not yet, as I have very few bottles that would require five or six days of storage.  Additionally, I have not been entirely comfortable with the value point of the technology.  I expect more competition in this field, with improved quality and durability and a lower price in the near future.  I am open to buying such a system, but have not done so yet.  I keep monitoring this type of device though to see what is available and if it is coming to a value point where I am comfortable purchasing one.

The top of the line unit to store opened bottles costs several thousand dollars and can be configured to store as many bottles as you like.  They typically come in a configuration to store four bottles, but can be customized to store less or more.  Additionally, they can be provided as a counter top unit or designed to be built into the wall or cabinetry.  Wine features such as this type of storage unit plus Vintec or other manufacturer’s cellar units are now being featured as key aspects of kitchen renovations.  I love things that are very functional and very stylish and this type of system fits both characteristics!

These systems are manufactured as closed systems where a tight seal is provided for each bottle.  They typically have temperature control to be able to adjust the temperature to be suitable for a certain type of wine (sparkling versus white versus red).  They have much higher quality parts and are custom assembled to suit your needs.  I am hopeful to get such a unit someday when I have the money and also know that I will be living in that house for a long, long time.  They will allow a wine to be opened and drunk over several weeks. The reason they work so well is that they ensure air cannot creep into the space in the bottle as the air has been replaced with carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon.  By doing so, oxidation has been reduced drastically, preserving the quality of the wine longer.

There are a number of suitable options to keep your wine as fresh as you need it once you have opened the bottle.  They come at different value points and vary based on how long you would typically need to keep bottles opened before finishing them.  The important thing is to always stopper the bottle with one method or another as soon as you can and to extract as much air as you can from the bottle.  This will slow the rate of deterioration and preserve your wine at a level enjoyable for drinking for a longer period of time.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Why does the screw top controversy rage on?

I have evolved my views on this over the last decade, and must say that I am in very strong favor of using screwtops.  Almost everyone else in the industry globally is also.  Yet, there are a few hold-outs, including the Chinese (who seem to value the cork tradition more at this point in time).  However, I believe that a few influential Chinese ‘wine thought leaders’ will come around quickly to the use of screw tops and then the rest of the nation will follow.

Fortunately the Australia wine industry is almost entirely converted to the use of screw top and recently awarded the 2012 McWilliams Maurice O’Shea Award to the ‘Australian Screwcap Initiative.’  (My use of ‘screw top’ and their use of ‘screwcap’ is interchangeable.)  Usually this prestigious award goes to a great wine, but occasionally it goes to a theme or initiative and awarding it to the use of screw tops was a very bold step by the Australian wine industry which clearly announces the use of screw tops is clearly the future.

Almost simultaneously, the Italian wine authorities have approved the use of screw tops and other synthetic sealers to be used for their higher quality DOC and DOCG wines for the first time.  Even the Europeans are starting to come around!

The science and evidence around the use of a slightly porous cork allowing a good to great wine to reach its full potential is just not there.  Quite conclusively, the marginal potential differences are extremely minor or likely non-existent.  Screw tops provide the same path to maturity and complexity that corks do as what has been bottled inside the seal is sufficient to create to most from the wine.  The quality of the grape, the wine maker and the little bit of air in the ullage is far more important than the minute amount of air that may seep in over the next 10 – 20 years.  And if that air amount is ‘more than a very little,’ the wine will oxidize and turn to vinegar.

Cork has some major issues which can make for a most unpleasant tasting experience:

  • Cork failure rates are between 3% and 15% according to a variety of studies, even with cork quality control and checking – it is just the nature of the beast
  • Sometimes an entire batch of bad corks makes it way to the market and can ruin an entire great vintage of great wine
  • The variability of the exact same wine bottle to bottle is often visible and indicates that at least one of the bottles will be an unpleasant drinking experience!
One of the two undrinkable bottles of 2002 Wolf Blass Black Label

The greatest disappointments I have had in wine drinking to open what you know is or should be a great bottle of wine, only to find it has been ‘corked.’  This has happened to me several times and pouring a $50 – $100 bottle of  wine down the drain feels like ‘wine euthanasia.’  I will try anything to save such as bottle from considering it for cooking to rationalizing that is is drinkable and I just need to reduce my finicky standards a bit!  But if I am going to share the wine others, I will not let it pass and have to move onto the next bottle – if I have a back-up bottle (which I usually do, but this is not always convenient or possible).

I hate to be disappointed, especially when it is beyond my control to have the right outcome.  It is my fault if I leave a vintage far too long and the wine has deadened, lost it fruit, or lost its structure.  I can control that and avoid that happening.  But there is nothing I can do about having received a bottle of wine with a bad cork in it.  And even with a good cork, it is difficult to get 20 years of solid performance without it becoming saturated and starting to seep.  This puts at risk most of your best bottles that require 20 years to age.  That is why every two years, Penfolds offers free re-corking of Grange and other iconic Penfolds wines as some of them require 30 years or more to be optimally drinkable.

My view is that avoiding this disappointment (a corked bottle) far outweighs what extremely small possibility that for a limited few bottles of wine, that aging under cork ‘may’ yield a slightly better result than the same bottle under screw top.  You are guaranteed that bottle after bottle will be at its best and consistent when under screw top.  The only chance of the bottle going bad is if you have scorched it from storing it in too hot a condition.

The other problem with the variability of cork, is that if you have several dozen bottles, they are likely to age differently and the chance you will be drinking each bottle at its best is diminished.  With screw top, you know they will age at the same pace and be consistently drinkable during an optimum period of time.  The need to provide a ‘back-up’ bottle is no longer necessary.

“Yes,” I certainly enjoy the experience of taking out an old cork and will miss that experience more and more over time, but enjoying that sensation does come close to masquerading the the disappointment of a ‘corked’ bottle.  Insist on buying under screw top from now on and don’t take the risk.

Impact of temperature on wine taste is larger than you think! Part 2 – White Wine

In Part 1, we discussed the impact of temperature on red wines.  We will now do the same for white wines.  The effect of temperature is even more profound than it is for reds.

In general whites are stored in quite cool temperatures.  My long-term whites like my long-term reds are stored at 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit).  But then I have usually about 6 – 8 ‘ready-to-serve’ whites in my kitchen refrigerator which are stored at 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is too cold a temperature to serve most white wines.  In general, excellent white wines (Montrachets and other aged Chardonnays and Semillons) should be served at 10 – 14 degrees Celsius (50 – 57 degrees Fahrenheit) to really release their great flavors and bouquet.  Typically good white wines (Most other Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Grigios, etc.) served at 7 – 10 degrees Celsius (45 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and bad white wines as chilled as you like!

Boxed white wines and lower quality white wines are usually served very cold as they are lacking flavor anyway.  What most ‘bad’ white wine drinkers are looking for a a refreshing, cool drink and lots of alcohol!  But if you want to get the most flavor out of a white wine that it has to offer, then you should warm it up a few degrees.

In the past, I made the mistake of storing and serving my white wines too cold, especially if I took an excellent white wine directly from the fridge.  Now I tend to take the wine out of the fridge for about 15 minutes to let it rise in temperature a few degrees and become more flavorful.  This is often accomplished by putting the bottle in a carrying case to bring to a restaurant and the time it takes to get to the restaurant is perfect in terms of the wine being a few degrees warmer.  Or if I am going to serve it at home, I let it sit on the counter for 15 minutes before serving it.

For an excellent white wine, especially a great and aged Chardonnay, I now let the wine warm up to about 12 degrees or so.  (Note that I do not actually take the temperature of the wine, but rather just feel the bottle and compare the bottle to room temperature.)  A bottle such as a great Montrachet or the Penfolds Yatarnna deserve this type of treatment and you will definitely notice the improved bouquet of wine in your nose and taste of the wine on your palate.

I love taking a sip when it is still ‘too cold’ and swirling an excellent white wine around my mouth.  The body temperature of my mouth warms the wine almost immediately and over several minutes, you can pick up a variety of different tastes that keep changing over time.  It is an amazing experience and worth savoring!

Champagnes and sparkling wines are usually served even more chilled than while wines.  For low-end sparklings, you can serve them at 4 – 6 degrees Celsius, but good Champagnes should be served at a somewhat higher temperature.

While difficult to discern by other than expert tasters, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy relates the different experiences he has had with the 1996 Moet and Chandon Dom Perignon Champagne:
  • at 8°C, mineral and a little closed, perfect with an oyster tartare
  • at 9°C, moderately open, to be matched with crayfish
  • at 10°, complements wild salmon magnificently
  • at 11°, chardonnay’s butter notes appear, volume amplifies
  • at 12°, delicate mushroom aromas appear
  • at 13°, pinot noir aromas, tannins! serve with a lamb tajine
  • at 14°, smoky flavours and yoghurt aromas are revealed
  • at 16°, aromas of meringue and walnuts, amazing intensity – magical with a tarte Tatin with candied violets

Most of us could not discern such differences in flavor, but some can.  However, we can all learn from this and be appreciative of the difference a few degrees makes!  BTW, if you want to do this experiment with a bottle at each degree between 8 and 16, it will cost you about $2,400 at $300 per bottle!

You deserve the enhanced flavor of letting a great white wine warm up a few degrees towards room temperature to enhance the taste.  A number of people will take a great white wine directly out of their long-term cellar at 14 degrees Celsius (by now you should know this is 57 degrees Fahrenheit!) and serving it.

Right way – no ice

If you have removed white wine from the fridge or a Vintec where it has been stored ‘cold,’ and once it has warmed up a couple of degrees to release the flavors, you should place the white wine in wine storage container without ice (like in the photo to the left).  This ensures the wine stays at the right temperature for a long time (hopefully long enough to finish the bottle!).  If you put it in an ice bucket, it will return the wine to close to freezing, choking off the flavor.  Therefore, I never use ice in any manner with good white wine.  (Or you may consider just using a few cubes to counterbalance the room temperature.) If you are drinking bad white wine, then use all the ice you want, as you want to hide the poor flavor!

Wrong! Do not use ice!

We may not all have the discerning palate of Richard Geoffroy, but we can still greatly enhance our white wine tasting experience by making sure we are storing and serving the wine at the right temperatures.I have learned that there is great benefit in warming an excellent white wine up a few degrees before tasting it.  Do some comparison testing and see if you do not agree!

And if this all seems just too hard, then for white wine, take it out of the fridge for 20 minutes before serving it and leave it at that.  That is as good a rule of thumb as any.

The bigger the bottle, the longer the cellaring

Wines come in all size bottles.  The most standard wine bottle size is 750 ml.  The ‘half-bottle’ at 375 ml is used sparingly for table wines, but is a common size for dessert wines.  (The wine makers may be concerned that after a couple 750 ml bottles over dinner, it is good to finish with some restraint, so a smaller bottle is in order!)  The smallest size is the ‘split’ at 187.5 ml, and is known as a single serving size.  This is the size you are usually handed or asked to buy in economy class on an airline.

Then there is the impressive 1.5 liter ‘magnums.’  The sheer mass to these bottles make them an impressive sight!  For larger groups, they can prove useful to make sure everyone gets a taste.  But after that, the even larger bottle size starts to become almost ridiculous.  The 3 liter ‘double magnum’ is more suitable for large parties where you want everyone to drink the same thing with limited choice.  This may serve well at a BBQ or a wedding, for example.  But after that, I believe the size of the bottle is strictly for show.  I mean how does one lift and pour the bottle, and how does one decant the bottle?  You would require a bathtub for a 12 liter bottle!

Except for dessert wines, I almost always drink only 750 ml bottles.  They pour and decant nicely and without much drama.  The standard decanter is designed for this size bottle unless mentioned otherwise.  The main reason I like to drink 750 ml bottles is that when having a dinner or gathering of four to eight people, then I can open two to four different bottles of different wines.  This works really well in terms of matching wines to different courses of a meal, and also for comparing and sampling many different wines.  In general, I find it is always more pleasurable to share a couple of different bottles instead of focusing on only one wine in an evening.  Larger bottles such as magnums (or even larger) limit the variety for smaller groups.

I have about 15 magnums of some nice wines I plan to use for larger celebrations and when bringing some special groups of people together.  I also bought (as a really good deal for the volume!) 24 double magnums.  The double magnums represent some of Australia’s best wine from the best vintages.  Yet, every time I think about pulling one out, I usually go with other choices (such as several bottles of a comparable wine) because (1) the are easier to handle, (2) I have more choice, and (3) the larger bottles are unlikely to be ready to drink yet.

When wine ages in a bottle, the air in the head space (called ullage) mixes over time with the wine in the bottle to mature and enhance it.  Describing why and how this happens could take several posts on their own.  The important thing to know is that for larger bottles, the ratio of the volume of air in the head space to the volume of wine is drastically reduced (since each bottle is filled to the top).  Therefore, it takes a lot longer time for the wine to mature and reach optimal drinking in a larger bottle.

When a wine taster / reviewer projects the time range in which to optimally drink the wine, he/she is estimating that based on the wine being cellared in a 750 ml bottle.  The general rule of thumb (for good wines that enhance through cellaring) is that for every doubling in bottle size (from 750 ml) you should cellar the bottle for an additional three to five years.  Therefore a double magnum could take an additional six to ten years in the cellar before it is ready to drink. 

Unfortunately, there is also the risk involved that the cork or the storage conditions are sub-optimal and statistically, you may not drink the bottle at the right time for that bottle.  There is a much greater chance with larger bottles that you will either drink the wine too early or too late.

Two years ago, I opened a 750 ml bottle of the 1994 Wynn’s John Riddoch (a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon).  This is a stunning bottle of wine and drank beautifully.  We were able to share it among friends as part of a wine tasting.  Then several weeks later, I took my team out to celebrate the successful end of a major project, and over lunch and after a few earlier wines, decided to buy a magnum of the same 1994 Wynn’s John Riddoch, expecting it would be comparable.  However, it was still too tight and even after much decanting, could not compare with the same wine stored in the 750 ml bottle.  The magnum required at least five more years to be as soft and mature as the wine from the 750 ml bottle was at that point in time.

This was an expensive mistake, but I learned a lot that day.  I now take bottle size seriously in laying down the wine for the requisite number of additional years before I consider opening it.

In general, I avoid or limit the number of large bottles I have, but if you do have some, make sure to age them for a longer time.  The general rule of thumb should be to add three to five years of cellaring every time you double up the bottle size from the standard 750 ml size.

How long will an open bottle of wine last?

Many of us never reach this situation as we polish off a bottle (or more) the first day we open it!  I love to drink wine almost every day, but not that much.  And if it is just my wife and me, we may want to share a bottle over a few days.  Given what we have for dinner, what wine is leftover may not go with the meal the next night, so I may open another bottle to better match the food.  Then I may have two or even three bottles of open wine sitting around!

There are several ways to store wine and keep it reasonably fresh and drinkable for several days.  I use the Vacu Vin pump and stoppers.  Similar models are made by ScrewPull and others, but they all basically work the same.  The newer models have a clicking sound to alert you that you have pumped as long as required and have removed the air from the bottle.  Make sure you get the newer model!  It works far better than the old ones.  The newer stoppers look like the ones to the left.  The older model stoppers look like the ones below and to the right.

There are very expensive systems that will keep between two and four open bottles fresh for a matter of several weeks.  However, they cost from $1,500 – $7,000 based on capacity and quality.  But the Vacu Vin or similar models may be purchased for $20 – $25 inclusive of pump and several stoppers, and certainly will keep the wine fresh for several days.

I had opened a 2005 Stags Leap Black Label Petite Shiraz a full week ago, and because of the meals we had during the week, I did not get around to drinking more of the Stags Leap until last night – six days after the bottle was open.  It was still very fresh, and tonight I am finishing off the last of the bottle.  It has very slightly diminished in freshness, but still an excellent wine.

I should point out that lasting a full week has to do with the quality of this wine.  It is about $60 – $75 per bottle in Australia and has been built to last.  It is unusual for a wine to last this long in an open bottle when using the pump and stopper method.  This is the sign of a very good quality wine.  Most wines in their optimal drinking range will be good for two to three additional days at the longest after opening the wine.  Once a bottle is open, you should always try to drink the wine within one or two more days after opening.  Better quality wines in their optimal drinking range should be able to last two to four days, but I would not normally push it beyond that.  I was lucky with the Stags Leap!

A great, big wine with some age on it will mellow and may even be better after another day of being opened.  This was certainly true of the 1987 Pyrus I discussed in another post entitled “Should you decant wine?”  This wine tasted better the second day.

However, you need to be really careful with older, more fragile wines.  The structure is much less tight than for a newer wine and will break down quickly.  An older wine should be drunk in its entirety the same day, or certainly the next day.  It will lose flavor quickly and have noticeably deteriorated by the second day.

To use the pump and stopper, place the stopper into the bottle completely flush, and then put the pump over the stopper, holding the pump down onto the stopper to provide a seal.  Hold the base of the pump with one hand and lift the handle of the pump up and down until you start to hear a clicking sound.  This will indicate that you have removed the air from the bottle.  Do this each time you open and then close the bottle.  As the wine in the bottle becomes less and less, the amount of time to remove the air increases slightly.

This process will allow you to get more enjoyment out of your wine, even if the bottle has been open for several days.  Drink well!

(BTW, this process is not necessary for fortified wines (alcohol over 20%) as the air does not create the bacterial effect it would with wines which are 16% alcohol and under.  You may just stop up the wine with the original cork.  However, make sure to stop the bottle somehow as if left open, while not turning to vinegar, a fortified wine will still lose flavor.)

The screw top controversy

For decades now, the controversy has been raging about the screw top and if it is as effective as cork for sealing a bottle of wine.  In my opinion, it is 99% as effective in 98% of the cases (the numbers are intuitive and have no statistical value).  And the risk of a corked bottle or bottles turning to vinegar because they were left upright for a prolonged period of time (and the corked dried out letting too much air into the bottle) is greatly reduced – therefore you will have far fewer bottles of wine that are damaged.  This avoids that disappointment of opening an anticipated and potentially expensive bottle of wine, only to find it is not drinkable.  Therefore, I am a big fan of the newer screw top method for sealing wine!

Almost all of the flavor and complexity of the wine (and its ability to mature and reach its maximum potential) is already inside the bottled when it is sealed, regardless of the type of seal used.  The quality of grapes and the wine-making process will mostly determine the ultimate quality the wine reaches when you drink it.  Regardless of sealing technique, there is air bottled inside to promote the microbiological development of the wine over time.

And here is where the minor difference between using a good cork and a screw top comes into play.  Once sealed with a screw top, no more air can get into the bottle.  With cork, there is some additional breathing that goes on (very little as the cork is always moist if stored properly and if not stored properly and the cork goes dry, then too much air gets into the bottle and the wine turns to vinegar).  This means that a bottle sealed with cork will mature and be drinkable slightly earlier than the same bottle with a screw top.  However, there are other factors that may influence the rate of maturation even more, including the temperature the wine is stored at.  The warmer the temperature, the quicker the maturation process.  However, most good wines can be drunk over a period of years and you need to occasionally taste a bottle to determine how they develop and when to optimally drink them.  By doing so, a very slight rate of maturation difference (which is what you have between a cork and a screw top) makes very little difference, either in determining the quality or the right time to drink the wine.

The big difference in my opinion is that screw tops are extremely consistent from cap to cap and each bottle of the same wine from the same vintage will taste the same – there will be very little difference from one bottle to the next.  For the most part, this is a very positive trait and provides for a consistent and pleasant drinking experience with no disappointment!  Whereas, cork by its very nature has faults or at least differences in the structure and composition from cork to cork.  While estimates vary study to study, significant cork faults can occur in between 3% and 15% of corks made.  And sometimes, whole batches of bad corks are produced and sold to wine makers which can ruin an entire vintage of the wines.

I once had two bottles one right after the other in a restaurant of the 2003 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (a great wine BTW!) which I was paying $160 per bottle in the restaurant in 2007.  While both bottles were acceptable to drink, most of us at the table could determine the slight difference and the second bottle not being quite the same as the first.  Just being slightly different meant we found the second bottle to be less enjoyable than the first (because are taste buds had been set and were expecting the exact same taste).  I am assuming both bottles came from the same lot and were stored in exactly the manner, so the only difference between the two bottles was due to slight differences in the cork.

For some more complex and long aging wines, it may be possible the a specific cork variation may allow several bottles of that wine to achieve a presence that is unique and slightly better than the majority of the bottles.  This is one small advantage of cork as I see it – that because of the variation of the cork from bottle to bottle that some bottles may be better than average, however it also means that just as many may be slightly worse than average!  And if the cork is bad, the bottle may be undrinkable!  Therefore, the slight advantage that you may find a few bottles of a particular wine that are slightly better than the rest does not, in my opinion, justify the ongoing use of cork.  I believe screw tops provide significant advantages overall, including:

  • consistency from bottle to bottle and ‘no surprises’
  • no wastage due to ‘corked’ (were the cork is faulty) bottles that have turned to vinegar
  • no wastage from bottles that have been stored incorrectly (standing up) and the cork has dried out (even though it was a good cork) and the wine has turned to vinegar
  • ease of use and convenience opening bottles

Most Australian and US wine makers have or are switching over all of their bottling to using screw tops and I believe this is the right thing to do.  The wine will not suffer and more of it will be drinkable over the years.

I have a variety of corkscrews and love taking the cork our of a bottle of wine, especially a saturated cork that has been in the bottle for 20 or more years.  Getting the cork out successfully is like the thrill of landing a 15 – 20 pound fish on a 6 pound test line!  Removing the cork from a bottle is like foreplay before sex – an enjoyable part of the anticipation and build up to drinking the wine.  Therefore, I have and will always have bottles in my cellar for the next several decades that have corks for sealing.  But I do applaud and agree with the wine makers to switch over to screw tops as the right thing to do – for the wine, the wine maker and the consumer.