Screw-cap wines have perhaps a deserved but outdated reputation as cheap, insignificant and low quality wines. This reputation stems from the first use of screw caps on wines in the 1950s. Brands associated with bottle caps instead of corks were usually low price and tended not to be wines you’d want to write home about.
However, as wine has been understood on a more scientific level, screw-cap wines now have a very different reputation. Corks don’t always protect wines as well as they should, and plastic “imitation corks” may not be perfect at the job for storing wines either. This has led to a number of high quality screw-cap wines, because the newer caps may actually mean better storage in the bottle.
Though screw-cap wines may seem a shock to wine traditionalists, there are studies suggesting that these wines may hold up over time better and tend to store and age at a more predictable rate than wines with artificial or natural cork toppings. For wine collectors, this consideration may be paramount because storing a wine only to find it has gone bad or lost flavour is not particularly desirable.
The real birth of the Australian Screw-cap Movement dates back over 40 years ago when the Production Director of Yalumba contacted French manufacturer Le Bouchon Mecanique in a quest to eradicate cork taint in his wines and preserve their freshness. Screw-caps had been used on food products since the middle of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Le Bouchon Mecanique (presentday Alcan) created a screw-cap that was specially adapted for wine bottles. However, whilst the French lead the way in the manufacturing of screwcaps, their commercial use was initially limited due to consumer resistance.
In Australia, the use of screwcaps increased rapidly throughout the 80’s and 90’s, but it wasn’t until 2000 when a pioneering group of winemakers in the Clare Valley decided to adopt this modern seal for their premium wines, that screwcaps gained widespread commercial acceptance, and by 2003 Australia had become the world’s largest consumer of screwcaps for premium wines.
The winemakers acknowledged that the decision to use screwcaps would fly in the face of tradition and could potentially lead to customer resistance, however, they also knew that this was a daring step that had to be made to ensure the quality of their wines. The fact that quality and not economics was the major motivation for the move to screwcaps was underlined by the significant financial investment made by the wineries in specialised capping equipment. The quality of the seals was heavily documented, and received a very positive welcome by the media followed by a high level of acceptance by the consumers.
Today, the majority of the Australian bottled wines come with a screw-cap, and they are certainly not alone. Similar shifts have been seen in many other New World countries like New Zealand and the US, and with Spain, France and Italy now producing more and more wine sealed with screwcaps, the trend is definitely catching on.