Screw-capped wine - once the symbol of the cheapest and not always most cheerful of plonk - has finally come of age.

Supermarkets and wine experts now believe a screw cap can be used instead of a cork on many high-quality wines without damaging image or taste.

The most significant indicator of the advance is that supermarkets, which provide the bulk of wines bought in this country, are marketing screw-capped wines in the £10-plus range aimed at special occasions. Screw caps and plastic corks account for about 20 per cent of wine entering the UK.

The supermarkets stress that the principal advantage of the screw cap, in eliminating the possibility of the wine being "corked", is more important the more you pay for a bottle. An estimated one in 10 wines suffers from being corked - a condition in which trichloroanisol, a chemical in the cork, reacts and causes the wine to smell and taste musty and "off".

The drive towards screw tops on upmarket wines has been pioneered by New World wine producers in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, which have already revolutionised wine production and drinking in more traditional areas such as France and Italy.

Although the death knell has not quite yet sounded for the evocative "pop" when a cork is pulled or the ritual of the sommelier handing it to the customer to inhale the aroma, there are signs that in the future this might be confined to only the finest oak-aged clarets and burgundies.

Tesco, Britain's biggest wine seller, believes that within five years most wine sold will have screw caps. To back its claim, this week it has launched two very traditional French wines with screw caps - a £13.99 chablis and a £6.99 estate-bottled claret.

About 60 screw-capped wines are sold by Tesco although, like most supermarkets, the bulk of these are cheaper wines such as German liebfraumilch or Italian lambrusco. Ann Marie Bostock, head of wine for Tesco, said: "This is the beginning of the end for traditional corks - even for the best-quality wines. By the end of the decade, traditional cork closures will be seen as period pieces.''

Waitrose already sells a highly regarded £14 Australian reisling, Henschke Green Hills, at some London stores, one of about 30 screw-capped wines. Its wine buying team recently said that screw caps provided "the best closure" for many types of wine.

But it stopped short of saying that screw caps would dominate the market, stressing that for red and white wines aged in oak, Waitrose was not yet convinced that screw caps were the best way forward.

Britain's second biggest supermarket chain, Sainsbury, says its customers like screw caps because they find them easier to open and close.

But the cork industry, largely based in Portugal, is fighting back, launching research to improve cork quality and stressing environmental issues: unlike metal or plastic closures, cork is biodegradable and cork woodland provides valuable nesting ground for birds.

The best under a cap


Chateau La Raze Beauvallet 2001 France, Tesco £6.99 A classic claret from a single Medoc estate that might, normally, need more time in the bottle. The first of its kind to be on sale in the UK. Dark red and black fruit flavours, full bodied.

Rutherglern Estates Nebbiolo 2002 Australia, Waitrose £7.99 Old vines of relatively unknown Italian grape. Soft and medium bodied with dark cherry flavours and a hint of mint and spice.


Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc 2002 New Zealand, Sainsbury £8.03 A fine example of a grape that works best in the southern hemisphere, from a highly rated producer. Ripe tropical fruit, given sharpness with a touch of gooseberry.

Henschke Green Hills Riesling 2001 Australia, Waitrose (some London stores only) £14 From the Adelaide Hills, a classy wine for classy occasions. Floral, apple fragrance, but very dry.