One of the most annoying things for any child to hear are the words “because I say so”, in response to their asking “why?” Or “why not?”
For adults, the equivalently unhelpful expression is “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Why do wine bottles have to contain 75cl? Why are we still using corks? And why are we still using capsules?
Why do we need capsules?
I have to give credit to an excellent recent piece by Rupert Millar in The Buyer for raising an issue that was already at the front of my mind. My winemaker-partner Vladimer and I had already decided not to use a capsule for our new Georgian wine and, as he prepared to bottle the first release, he was wondering whether to add a protective wax disk on top of the Diam closure or to leave it naked.
Despite the tiny environmental impact, I decided, for aesthetic reasons to use the disk which, in theory at least, is biodegradable.
But, before talking about dispensing with capsules, let’s answer the question of why we had them in the first place.
Back in the day, people kept bottles of wine for a long time because good vintages were the exception (around one year in three) and even the best wines took a long time to soften enough to be enjoyable to drink.
Protection from mice
Cellars were also less pleasant and there were significant risks of rats, mice, weevils and caterpillars nibbling into corks that were, themselves, much more variable in quality. Capsules, made of lead, not only protected the closures, but also prevented leakage. Indeed, they could do this so effectively that, on more than one occasion, a perfectly drinkable wine was served from a bottle that had somehow totally missed being sealed with a cork.
Lead was abandoned in the 1990s, on health grounds, and most wineries switched to foil or, annoyingly, hard-to-remove plastic. Some producers, equally annoyingly – for sommeliers in particular – opted to follow the port shippers’ tradition of dipping the bottle necks in wax.
Whatever they were made from, capsules have also made life harder for forgers. As the world’s top wine detective, Maureen Downey explains, faking a lead capsule to match a 1945 label, is not that simple.
That was then, this is now
But most of us rarely, if ever, drink 10-year-old wine, let alone bottles that have been stored for eight decades, and even when we do, it tends to have been in cellars with fewer weevils and mice.
In any case when it comes to wine, nakedness is increasingly fashionable, though usually at the lower end of the price scale. In the UK, Berry Bros & Rudd have gone capsule-less for their own-label wines and the retail chain Waitrose is following their example for its 10 Loved & Found range.
However, just as it is easy for opinion formers to suggest that it’s easy for wineries to switch to lighter glass without considering the possible impact on sales, I can imagine the same people advocating an instant end to capsules.
Of course, it’s not that straightforward.
The capsule of every bottle of wine sold for consumption in France has to have a seal that confirms that the appropriate tax has been paid. Where will that appear once the capsule has been replaced by the bare end of a cork?
Proof of quality
In Germany, for example, wineries like JJ Prum use capsules to indicate the quality and style of some of their Auslese wines. White capsules are ‘basic’, while gold ones, depending on their length, indicate higher levels of botrytis.
Elsewhere, wineries with ranges of styles use colours to help shoppers pick out the bottle they want: dark red for Cabernet; blue for Malbec; paler red for Merlot, for example.
One environmentally acceptable way to accommodate the needs of producers like these might be to use a paper strip, as Champagne producer Emeline de Sloovere has done. But it is easier for sparkling wines that already have a metal cap to which the strip can be glued.
None of this is insuperable, but nor is it as straightforward as it has been for a single British retailer to give up using capsules on its own wines that it sells in the UK. But what am I going to do with the tax capsules on my Georgian wine if I can persuade a French sommelier to sell it? Will I be allowed to stick them on the wax disk I’ve just decided to use?
Looking at all of these issues, I am not betting on capsules becoming a thing of the past any time soon. But at least we’ve asked why not?