At this time of year (my tasting-for-Platter time, with desk, floorspace and life littered with bottles of wine) I often think about bottle closures – not infrequently with some irritation. I recently revisited in a small way here the screwcap-cork debate, but didn’t mention how, around now, whatever I think of the important arguments, when I’m confronted with another half dozen or dozen bottles to open and later reseal I’m totally thrilled when they have screwcaps: convenience becomes my overriding concern for at least the moment.
A minor bit of the whole logistical problem is not the closure itself, but the capsule over the end of the bottle. Of course screwcaps have none, which is part of their convenience – and part of the lack of fuss and procedure and brief deferment of gratification which some people enjoy with traditional cork stoppers.
But, I wonder, does anyone really enjoy wax-dipped bottles? Wouldn’t they prefer, from a practical point of view, a capsule – even those horrid thick or thin plastic ones (I’m not sure which of those two is worse, in fact). Unfortunately, of course, one would have to be opening a really old bottle to have a traditional lead capsule, as health consideration saw their banishment many decades back. But there is surely no denying the nearly-lost pleasure of dinner-table conversation while fiddling around with, and smoothing out, one of those surprisingly heavy lead capsules, which tear so satisfactorily. Modern light metal foil ones are nowhere near as much fun, though it’s certainly better playing with them than brushing into a pile the little bright fragments that so often scatter over the table after removing a wax capsule.
Often, but not always, for not all of them are hatefully brittle; some are soft and pliable and much easier to deal with. One problem when considering an opening strategy is that it’s not always easy to gauge the wax’s softness.
What is the best opening strategy? I have just experimented with one recommended to me: if shaking up sediment isn’t involved, I was told, invert the bottle and dip the waxed end into some very hot water, to melt it. Well, it’s not a recommendation I will pass on. Perhaps I was too impatient, but while the wax was certainly much softer, and even breaking up somewhat after a minute or two, trying to remove it at that point made even more mess than results from my usual approach: to plunge the corkscrew straight through the wax and pull the cork through it.
Just occasionally, the cork will pull away a shortish wax capsule in its entirety. But that’s a rare occurrence, and there’s frequently an amount of clearing up to do around the mouth of the bottle, usually leading to mess. Going straight through the wax is not entirely satisfactory, but it is, as far as I know, the best way to proceed. In fact, if the wax is pretty soft, one can combine this method with the traditional application of a foil cutter as I’ve recently realised. This doesn’t allow the wax cap to be just lifted off, but it will often be pulled away with the withdrawn cork.
That’s first prize. The result can be seen in one bottle in the photo alongside. The other shows a more common messy result needing a lot of picking or cutting away, with a softish wax and still leaving the lip of the bottle contaminated. Brittle wax makes infinitely worse problems.
But why use wax at all rather than a decent quality metal capsule? Why use any capsule, in fact? Some cork-closed bottles don’t, these days, though it does give a rather naked appearance, mitigatable by a sealing strip of paper for decency’s sake. Originally the capsule’s purpose was, it seems, to protect the cork from beasties crawling around the cellars in which the bottles were stored. Probably not a vital necessity any more.
Wax is, in fact, mostly used (certainly in South Africa) in trendy or cultish “alternative” wines. It does lend an air of personal attention – the bottles must be individually hand-dipped, and there’s little perfect uniformity in the result – and this is undoubtedly part of the image of such wines. Colour variation is easy, too. Rather more importantly, such wines are usually made in small quantities and wax-dipping, however labour-intensive, is greatly cheaper than ordering a special small run of metal capsules. We must continue to chip and prise and scrape away.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.