Consumers are ready to doff their caps to a once controversial wine closure

I remember it was only a few years ago that the debate was raging as to whether wine consumers here in the UK would ever really take to the idea of screwcaps on their wine. Determined views were put forward from both the "for " and "against "camps . At Wine Intelligence we certainly saw a lot of consumer resistance towards screwcaps, frequently hearing them refer to the closures as "making wine feel cheap". However, our recent research has revealed a real shift in consumer attitudes. Acceptance for screwcaps has risen to a level where they are now considered part of the mainstream.

In our recent Vinitrac survey of 1,000 regular wine drinkers in the UK we found that three-quarters now find screwcap closures acceptable. This compares with 64 per cent acceptance in 2004 and just 41 per cent in 2003. This brings acceptance of the screwcap closure almost on par with that of synthetic cork.

Interestingly, the study also reveals that improvement in screwcap perceptions has not been accompanied by a decline in perceptions of natural cork.

Nearly all consumers find natural cork an acceptable closure - a view virtually unchanged from three years ago, which suggests that wine trade debates about cork taint and oxidisation have yet to make a significant impact on consumer attitudes.

Nonetheless, as we all know, the past two years have witnessed a significant increase in the number of SKUs with screwcap closures offered for sale by major retailers in the UK. When we conducted a store check in January this year we saw that, not surprisingly, Tesco is at the forefront of such developments. Close to two-thirds of its white wine and almost half of its red wine is now sold with screwcaps.

Our audit revealed that the use of screwcaps remains heavily concentrated in New World wines. New Zealand is leading the way , with the store check data showing that 92 per cent of bottles originating from New Zealand already come with screwcaps.

Beyond basic questions such as "will they or won't they accept screwcaps over cork", we are now understanding a lot more about why.

We can identify two distinct groups of consumers when it comes to attitudes towards closures. One group of consumers emerges as those who are driven primarily by emotional factors and the other group is much more driven by rational factors.

This survey shows us that 29 per cent of regular wine drinkers in the UK are primarily driven by emotional factors - an approach which entails a strong preference for natural cork as this closure type is seen as an important part of the wine-opening ritual.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent were identified as having adopted a "rational" approach, whereby attitudes towards the various closure types are relatively neutral, with a stronger emphasis placed on the wine itself. This view can also be driven by functionality.

One woman, a frequent wine drinker in her 60s, confessed to having been very anti-screwcap in the past. She admitted to us that she now actively sought out screwcaps whil e shopping for wine in Sainsburys. "I've finally got over my prejudice ," she said, "and I've actually reali sed that the screwcap wines are so much easier to open. Particularly for somebody like me, when my hands don't function quite as well as they used to ."

So, with an ageing population, perhaps this is a viewpoint to which we should be paying more attention .

Looking ahead, I think the trend towards more widespread use of alternative closures is likely to continue in the UK, although some consumers will continue to strongly prefer cork, which may limit the expansion somewhat.

This, coupled with remaining ­questions over the suitability of screwcap closure for wine with long-term ageing potential, appears to be an area in which we still don't really have all the answers.

And then there are the environmental questions which will start to come into play much more over the next few years. We were contacted recently by the Guardian newspaper for our views on consumer attitudes to closures, before the launch of its campaign to promote the use of natural cork to preserve the Portuguese cork forests and its wildlife.

And what about closure recycling, closure miles and closure manufacturer sustainability?

Our view is that these issues will have an impact on what happens to wine closures in the future. Maybe it won't be primarily driven by consumers, but if Tesco or Asda starts a campaign, well - who knows what the future may hold

Vinitrac Closures 2007 - key report findings

Fifty-eight per cent of UK consumers like buying natural cork closures. This compares with 22 per cent with the same attitude to synthetic cork closures, and 30 per cent for screwcap.

One in every three respondents said their attitude to screwcaps was improving. This compares with 21 per cent who said the same for synthetic cork, and 11 per cent who said the same for natural cork. Nine per cent of respondents said their attitude towards screwcaps was getting worse, and the same percentage said that of synthetic cork. Seven per cent of those surveyed said their attitude towards natural cork was getting worse.

One in six UK wine consumers are unlikely to buy wine with a screwcap closure. Eight per cent would not buy wine with synthetic cork, and 4 per cent said no to natural cork.