Originally a protective sleeve designed to keep rodents or other pests from harming the cork while bottles of wine aged, capsules are now mostly decoration. Similar to the way Carhartt and Dickies workwear received a stylish stamp of approval from men’s wear designers, artisanal-minded wine producers around the world are making old-school wax capsules feel brand new. Savvy marketers have long embraced them as a branding opportunity to make a bottle stand out.
Capsules come in a range of eye-catching colours, possibly sporting a winery’s logo or motto. Once commonly made from lead, they’re now usually fashioned out of tin, heat-shrink plastic or aluminum.
Wax was believed to create a better seal for wines, making the cork more airtight to extend the wine’s aging potential and safeguard it from leaking. Its expense and the need to individually plunge each bottle into the wax saw the wax technique fall out of favour.
But that time-honoured, piecework aesthetic is why wax-dipped wine bottles are back in fashion with heritage-minded producers.
“I think it really does send a message that the winemaker is trying to do something special and put extra care and attention to detail into their package,” says Krysta Oben, wine director at Toronto hotspots Paris Paris and Favorites Thai BBQ.
The talented sommelier, who moonlights as co-founder of Grape Witches, a wine club dedicated to spreading the magic of artisanal and natural wines, notes that there’s been a steady increase in wax-sealed wines coming onto the market. They might not be common on liquor store shelves – California’s Belle Glos Pinot Noir is the rare large-volume wine brand that employs wax – but routinely turn up on top of the sort of small-batch, single-vineyard chenin blancs, chardonnays and pinot noirs that savvy sommeliers love to secure for their wine lists.
“It’s an opportunity for winemakers to finish their wine bottles so they look very beautiful and old-fashioned. I really like them, although speaking as someone who manages a busy wine bar, I sometimes wish that winemakers exclusively used screwcaps,” Oben says.
Serving in the restaurant and hosting Grape Witches events, Oben explains she frequently encounters people who are nervous about wax capsules. It’s true that there’s trepidation about the best way to extract the cork without any undue stress or mess.
“The wax on the top of the bottle isn’t there to thwart you,” she insists. When she’s training staff on the proper technique to open one of these wines, she stresses the importance of being confident. “Look at the bottle and think about the wax,” she advises. “Most producers use a very soft wax, which makes it easier to open the bottle without getting wax all over guests and yourself.”
If it is sealed with soft wax, Oben’s approach is use the blade on your corkscrew to cut all the way around the neck of the bottle, the same way you’d cut through a conventional capsule. Next you can peel off the top to expose the cork for opening.
Older wax-dipped wine bottles might have used a harder type of wax, which presents more of a challenge. “I’m not a fan of dipping older wines like that in warm water to soften the wax. That will disturb the sediment,” she says. “Instead, I’ll wipe it with a wet cloth or cup it with my hand to try and soften the wax before opening.”
No matter which approach you take, Oben stresses, “It’s important to have a cloth with you to be able to wipe the inside of the bottle so little wax bits don’t get into your wine.”
At home, Oben suggests you could just plunge the corkscrew through the top of the wax and hope for the best. “You’ll know right away if something is wrong and you can change your course of action,” she says.