Why wine bottles are sealed with cork -- and why that may not be the best material

Most Wine Bottles Are Lying About Their Alcohol Content

While browsing for wines, your instinct may be to reach for the bottles that require a corkscrew rather than those with a screw cap.

But which is actually better: bottles under cork, or bottles under screw cap?

Business Insider recently spoke with James Harbertson, a Washington State University professor of enology — that's the study of wine — to ask him some of our most embarrassing questions about wine. On the topic of screw-cap wines, his answer was clear: No, they are not inferior to corked wines, and in some ways might actually keep your wine from spoiling.

View types of wine and where they come from:

Types of wine and where they come from
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Why wine bottles are sealed with cork -- and why that may not be the best material

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes originated in France. 

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The earliest known use of the Merlot grape was in France. It is now the most widely planted red wine grape in the world. 

(Photo by Lori Lee Miller via Getty) 

Pinot noir grapes are most often associated with France. 

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While Chardonnay's origin is in France, the grapes are now grown worldwide. 

(Photo by Bruce Shippee via Getty)

Moscato is made from the Muscat grape which originated in Italy. 

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Pinot grigio is an Italian creation from the Pinot gris grape. 

(Photo by Karin Lau via Getty)

Malbec is a celebrated Argentinian wine. 

(Photo by Lara Hata via Getty)

The French Sauvignon blanc grapes are grown worldwide, especially in France, Chile, Australia, South Africa and California. 

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Shiraz is blended from the DNA of various French grapes.

(Photo by Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Gewurztraminer grapes originate in Germany and flourish in colder climates. 

(Photo by Andreas-Saldavs via Getty)

Riesling grapes originated in Germany's Rhine region. 

(Photo by David Rigg via Getty)

Zinfandel grapes have similar DNA to several Croatian grapes, and are grown heavily in California. 

(Photo by Andreas-Saldavs via Getty)


While many bulk wines use screw caps — which is likely where the stigma originated — a screw cap is by no means and indicator of the quality of your wine.

In fact, any high-end wines also bear a twist-able top. For example, New Zealand has been transitioning to the twist-off style in recent years. Harbertson said that the screw-top is just as effective as cork at keeping air out.

Why wine bottles typically use cork

There are lots of reasons to use cork instead of a screw-cap. Cork is made from bark, which makes it a renewable resource. Plus, it can form to the shape of a wine bottle, making it an incredibly appealing way to seal wine.

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But there's a drawback: Occasionally bad cork can get into the wine, something called "cork taint." It's not going to harm you necessarily, but it will make the wine taste or smell a little funky, like moldy cardboard. Some people are fine drinking that wine, but others — like Harbertson — can't stand it. It's why New Zealand decided to switch from cork to screw after getting fed up with bad cork that kept causing this cork taint.

And interestingly enough, a 2013 study that looked into why cork tainted wine smells so bad found that it was because a certain chemical called "2,4,6-trichloroanisole" that's known to induce cork taint actually suppresses smell rather than create the off-putting odor.

So in the end, going for the screw-cap style wine bottle might be the safest way to go. Unless you'll terribly miss the pop of a cork coming unstopped.

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