Real . . . or fake? Get your mind out of the gutter: we are talking about synthetic vs. real corks.
The debate over synthetic and real corks is quite heated in the wine world. While many call for tradition and the use of real cork, others argue the benefits of synthetic corks outweigh any concerns over tradition. What is best? You decide. The following are pros and cons of real and synthetic corks.
A natural cork bottle comes from the cork tree, which is native to Spain and Portugal. Cork trees take anywhere from 16 to 25 years to mature, but once the tree has matured, it can be stripped of its bark every nine years; therefore, cork harvesting does not kill the tree and is considered eco-friendly. Corks can also be recycled: your if you happen to live near a Whole Foods Market, you may have noticed they have a cork recycling bin! As the oldest method of bottle closure, cork is also revered in the wine world.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of natural cork is its ability to “breathe.” Cork allows slight amounts of oxygen into the bottle, helping the wine age at a slow and steady rate. However, no two corks are alike, so it is possible that some wines can be overexposed to air and can be ruined. In addition, natural cork makes wine susceptible to the fungus that lives in cork trees called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) which causes the wine to be “corked.” (How do you know if your wine is corked? Check out our article on corked wine and cork production here.) Lastly–and perhaps the most superficial of arguments against corks–natural corks are prone to crumbling, which leaves bits of cork in the wine and in the glass.
Synthetic corks are made from Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE #4) and have gained popularity over the last decade. Like natural cork, synthetic corks can also be recycled, so make sure to save them!
Unlike natural cork, synthetic cork does not have the ability to allow wine to breathe; therefore, it is not the best choice for bottles meant to be aged. However, many consumers are shocked to learn that over 90% of wine bottles produced each year are meant to be consumed young and not aged, which reduces the need for aging corks a lot more than one would expect. As technologically continues to improve, many wine experts believe that someday the synthetic cork will be able to mimic the breathing and aging process. Only time–and science–will tell.
A major benefit of synthetic cork is its reduction of cork taint. TCA, the cork taint-causing fungus that lives in natural cork trees, is obviously not found in synthetic cork. A bottle enclosed with a synthetic cork will never have this unpleasant byproduct. In addition, synthetic corks are removed from the bottle without breaking or crumbling.
The quick sip on natural and synthetic corks . . .
Pros and Cons of Natural Cork
Pro: does not kill the tree
Con: trees take a long time to age and can only be harvested every 9-12 years
Pro: can be recycled
Pro: an old and generally effective method of enclosing wine
Pro: allows wine to breathe; best for aging
Con: susceptible to cork taint
Pros and Cons of Synthetic Cork
Pro: can also be recycled
Pro: no cork taint
Con: does not allow wine to breathe; not good for aging
Pro: most wines on the market do not need to be aged/allowed to breathe
Pro: do not break or cumble
Con: not traditional; “feels” synthetic and “cheap”