Wine shopping involves a lot of decisions—which grape, which country, which region, how much to spend—so it can be frustrating to have to worry about packaging, too. Still, the cork versus screw cap debate remains a popular topic among wine enthusiasts everywhere. Does it really matter? Let's clear up some of the myths and facts.

The upside to cork

Those who favor cork agree on a few key points, not the least of which is tradition. Screw caps are a twentieth century invention, but the cork has been around for more than 600 years. For some people there is an enchantment about keeping tradition alive—including the ritual of uncorking a wine bottle—which adds to the enjoyment.

Heritage and custom are not the only benefits. Cork bark is also a natural ingredient, and even better, it's a renewable resource. Cork is harvested from the bark of a Cork tree, which does not kill the tree. In fact, the bark regenerates itself.

Of course, many winemakers prefer cork for the simple reason that six centuries of use have proven that it's an excellent material for long-term aging of wine. Since cork does not have a completely airtight seal, it allows the wine to slowly oxidize in the bottle. This helps the wine continue to age while it sits in the cellar, developing more complex and nuanced flavors over time.

The downside to cork

For winemakers, the primary downside is the failure of cork to protect a sealed bottle from cork taint, otherwise known as TCA. TCA is an acronym for Trichloroanisole, a flaw that can happen when a wine is exposed to a particular yeast during production. If you've ever swirled and sniffed and gotten a whiff of something like wet dog, then you have experienced cork taint. Because corks are permeable, bottles sealed by a cork can be vulnerable to damage. Another downside producers face is the cost; cork is indeed more expensive than screw caps.

What is the downside of cork to the wine drinker who is uncorking the bottle? Besides the risk of TCA or other wine flaws, there is the irritation of corks that break down or break off and crumble into your wine while trying to remove them. Corks become brittle fast when they become dried out, so they require horizontal storage in racks to ensure the wine keeps the cork moist.

The upside to screw caps

The big one is there is no TCA after bottling. This doesn't mean the wine is always free of TCA, since it can be exposed prior to bottling. But, it does mean if it hasn't happened before bottling there is no chance of exposure until you open it yourself.

Plus, screw caps are easy to open. Seriously, so easy. No cork means you don't need to lug a corkscrew with you wherever you go, which is especially helpful if you are traveling, as TSA can be very particular about which devices you're allowed to carry on (side note: when flying you can only bring a corkscrew that does not have a collapsible blade).

The downside to screw caps

The airtight protection of a screw cap—which protects a wine from TCA—is also what keeps it from breathing and slows down the aging process, which can be a downside depending on the wine. Also, while screw caps are recyclable they are neither biodegradable nor from a renewable resource, and typically include PVDC plastic derived from petroleum, making them a far less eco-friendly option.

Now that you know the pros and cons, we should debunk a few of the popular myths out there.

Cork vs. screw caps: myths and facts

"There is a cork shortage."

No, there isn't. More than fifteen years ago there was a devastating fire in Portugal, one of the leading cork-producing countries, in an area host to a substantial number of Cork trees, but the industry recovered. Don't be alarmed—there is plenty of cork! Drink as much wine as you want.

"Cork depletes a natural resource and is bad for the environment."

No, it doesn't. The opposite is true because cork is harvested from the bark of the Cork tree, not the leaves, branches or trunk. The bark can regenerate, making cork a renewable resource. When it comes to packaging, cork is also one of the best eco-friendly options! Feel free to save mother earth, one wine bottle at a time.

"Screw caps are used on cheaper wines."

This may have had a modicum of truth in the past, since screw caps are less expensive than corks and were the obvious choice for budget-friendly wines. However, those times are long gone. Screw caps have their own benefits, so some high-end wineries are happy to look past the stigma. In fact, in some cases the winemakers prefer them. There is little correlation in today's marketplace between cap and quality!

Okay, now we have the myths cleared up, so what else do you need to know?

Constant innovation in wine packaging means that natural cork and screw caps are not the only two options for bottle enclosure and storage. A plant-based polymer cork, such as Nomacorc, entered the marketplace and its usage grows with each year. Plastic-lined glass enclosures are also used by wineries.

While natural cork adds character, heritage and custom to a bottle, it is not necessarily a reflection of quality. Screw caps are a convenient modern option, but they have their own drawbacks. To settle this debate for yourself, you only have to decide which of the pros and cons matter to you. One thing is clear—either way, you won't necessarily be sacrificing quality!