Posted: 24 Jul 2010 07:27 AM PDT
Last week a lady from New Zealand stayed at our Bed & Breakfast - www.bedandbreakfastinchampagne.com
Now, in New Zealand and in many other countries, more and more wine, even very high quality wines, are sealed with screw caps. Perhaps this explains why the lady in question told me she'd heard that the people in Champagne were thinking of introducing plastic caps instead of corks.
Personally I can't ever see this happening and certainly not for years and years and when you think about it this isn't surprising.
Unlike most wines that are sold young so that the consumer ages them at home, champagne is aged in France before sale.
Sometimes the ageing period can be 5, 6, 7 years or even longer, so even if the champenois were to test plastic corks to see if they might be suitable, the tests would have to last at least 7 years to be sure that the results were reliable over the entire ageing period of champagne.
Then of couse there's the prestige image of champagne to consider. Who'd want to buy Dom Pérignon with a screw top?
Last but not least, the question of cost, which might be crucial for some wines that sell at bargain prices, hardly comes into the picture when you're talking about champagne. The savings of a extra few pence per bottle for a plastic cork might be useful for the accountants, but it's not going to transform the results of the entire company.
So, seeing that they're with us for the foreseeable future, I thought we'd have a closer look at the humble cork, which we all take for granted, but without which champagne would hardly be the same.
Cork is a natural product made from the bark of a cork tree and over the centuries nothing, (until recently some would say), had been found that was better for sealing wine bottles. That's because the structure of the cork allows just the right amount of air to pass between the wine and the outside atmosphere. If no air at all could pass in to and out of the bottle the wine could not develop and mature properly - too much air, on the other hand, and the wine would rapidly turn to vinegar
The problem with corks however is that they are susceptible to a type of fungus and if this gets into the cork it will impart an unpleasant musty smell to the wine. That's what is meant when a wine is said to be 'corked'.
To reduce the pecentage of 'corked' bottles wine makers have always sought to improve the quality of the corks they use and that is what has driven the development of alternative closures for wine bottles.(There is a cost consideration too because cork is not cheap to buy).
When you open a bottle of champagne the cork has the characteristic mushroom shape that you know so well, but the cork didn't start out that shape.
When it's inserted into the neck of the bottle the cork is a straight-sided cylindrical shape and it has to be heated slightly (to make it maleable) before you can get it into the bottle. Either that or a thin film of wax is applied to the cork . Here's a bagful of new corks so you can see what I meanThe part of the cork that is inside the neck of the bottle stays compressed, whilst the part that is sticking out above the neck of the bottle expands and the bit in between is squeezed by the rim of the bottle and that where the mushroom shape comes from.
People will never stop experimenting with corks and indeed with other stoppers for champagne.
Here are a couple of more conventional types:
Well, the main part of the cork is made of little bits of cork all compressed together. This is relatively cheap, but on the end of the cork - the part that's in contact with the wine - you need something of better quality, so you'll see that there are two circles of solid cork.
And now for something completely different....
It's called the Maestro and you see what it's all about on the link. It hit the headlines about a year ago as being the way forward. It's ingenious because it's a device that retains the sound of a genuine cork popping even though the stopper is only plastic.
Inventive though it may be, the Maestro hit difficulties when it ran up against the legislation - there's lots of that in Champagne. The official definition of champagne is that it must be made by a certain method, within a given geographical area and sealed with a cork stopper. Until and unless that changes, plastic stoppers would seem to be a 'No No' even if they ever pass the rigorous, long-term quality tests that would be required.
Next time you open a bottle of champagne, take a second to look at the cork and see if you can tell what type it is.
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