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Are wine bottle cork capsules on the way out?

Aug 24, 2023

Retailers and wine producers are increasingly experimenting with corks that are completely naked

The first ever time I opened a bottle of wine I had no idea what I was doing. Attacking the cork through the tight-fitting foil capsule that covered it, I broke the cronky corkscrew and had to ask my friend’s parents for help. They laughed and showed us how to cut the capsule away first. Who knew? Not us.

Perhaps I was just ahead of my time. Capsules – the protective sleeves over the cork and neck of a wine bottle – could now be on the way out, at least on wines intended for immediate drinking. Keen to get rid of as much excess packaging as possible, retailers and wine producers are increasingly experimenting with corks that are completely naked.

On April 24, Waitrose will launch four capsule-free wines from its own-label Loved & Found range, which celebrates lesser-known grape varieties and regions. The trial will see a zibibbo from Sicily, trincadeira from Alentejo in Portugal, nerello mascalese from Sicily and lacrima from the Marche in Italy all appear completely bare-necked, the cork clearly visible through the glass and open to the air at the top.

If this catches on it will mean an end to struggling with blunt corkscrew blades and those contraptions whose sole purpose in life is to slice off the top of the capsule. I will also be happy to put behind me the days of bleeding copiously all over the wine bottle after lacerating my fingers on a ragged edge of thick foil.

As far as most wine is concerned, capsules, also variously known as foils or sleeves, are something of an anachronism. “They were introduced many years ago because cork moths would lay eggs on corks and on moist wine casks in dark cellars,” says Barry Dick MW, a member of Waitrose’s wine-buying team. “The caterpillars of this moth species, known as cork worms, would bore into the wine corks, causing the wine to leak or taste musty.

“As few people have wine cellars today, and most wine is drunk soon after it’s bought, there is little risk of the cork being destroyed in this way.”

Originally, capsules were made from lead or lead alloys, but problems with contamination, of both the wine and the later disposal site, led to a ban on lead capsules in the US and the EU in 1993, according to Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Now capsules might be made from a number of materials, including aluminium, tin, plastic or a composite. On still wines sold for immediate drinking, plastic is the most common. Thick metal foils are usually preferred on sparkling wines.

How do you remove yours? Do you even bother, now that some corkscrews are capable of pulling the cork out through it? My technique has improved a little, but not much: there are still times when I hack messily into the plastic or even wrench the whole thing off in frustration. Needless to say, this would not pass muster if I were serving in a smart restaurant.

I am not alone. Robert Boutflower of Tanners wine merchants once “induced gasps of amazement” from fellow merchants when he declared himself to be an “unashamed ripper offer”, according to Jason Yapp of fellow wine merchants Yapp Brothers.

Yapp, who has written very amusingly on capsule etiquette on the company’s blog, doesn’t just feel strongly about removing the sleeve neatly; he also minds about which lip – upper or lower – of the thick ridge of the bottle neck you choose to cut around. Yapp’s “quite dearly held” view is that “the lower tier offers some upward purchase with a corkscrew, and a cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing, appearance”.

Perhaps, at least as far as wines that are not intended for ageing go, the question of how to get into them, let alone where to get in, could soon become a moot point. Waitrose plans to move the rest of its 10-strong Loved & Found range over to sleeve-free bottles in September. The supermarket estimates this will save around half a ton of single-use packaging a year.

If customers buy them, it’s likely that more producers and retailers will follow its lead.