I recently came across a sparkling wine sealed with a beer-bottle cap. I’m all for keeping prices down, but can a bottle cap be good for an expensive bottle of froth?
Perfectly fine, actually, at least for a few years’ storage if not more. And in the case of bubbly in particular it makes certain sense.
You may be surprised to learn that virtually all fine sparkling wines, including hallowed Champagne, start out in bottles sealed with common crown caps. Carbonation in the best fizzy wines is produced bottle by bottle. It’s the natural product of yeast feeding on a dose of sugar added to a still wine. This is referred to as the secondary fermentation. Usually the bottle is left in the winery’s cellar to rest in this state for an extended period, long after the yeast gobbles the sugar, so that the spent yeast can enrich the flavour.
To trap the carbon dioxide produced by yeast, bottles must be sealed tightly – with a crown cap that fastens like a clamp around the rim. The hermetic, pressurized seal forces the CO2 to remain in liquid form. A conventional cylindrical cork, by contrast, would be forced out by the CO2, which, even at cool cellar temperature, would want to expand into a gas, yielding the pop and fizz.
Only after the resting period, often 18 months or more in the case of the best bubblies, does the crown cap come off and get replaced with a fancy mushroom-shaped cork and wire cage. As with still wines, many people believe cork is the best material for long-term cellaring. This is why I think you won’t see producers of the cellar-worthy sparkling wines, notably vintage Champagnes, stampeding to crown caps.
But certain daring producers are embracing the seemingly proletarian beer-bottle closure for a number of reasons. In part they may want to avoid defects associated with cork. Or they may want to thumb their noses at Champagne’s pretentiousness. Some have switched because the closure is more economical and convenient for consumers. For proof that great bubbly doesn’t need a mushroom cork, check out the offerings of Flat Rock Cellars and Featherstone Estate Winery, both in Niagara. Cheers to them.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol was recently named one of this season's Top 10 cookbooks in the United States by Publishers Weekly. Published by HarperCollins.