Ask The Wine Expert - Unsealing how wine is packaged

With some interesting facts, tips and tricks for buying, gifting and sipping, Modern Mississauga’s resident wine expert demystifies the world’s most interesting beverage.

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Good wine comes in a bottle with a cork, right? Well, sort of. That’s not a totally unfair generalization, but we are in the midst of a shift in the world of wine packaging. Screw caps, glass corks, Tetrapaks and bag-in-box are all available in the LCBO and though there is a definite stigma around them, could these be the formats of the future? Perhaps, but first let’s look at how we got to where we are.

We’re not sure who first thought to take a cylindrical piece of tree bark and stuff it in a glass bottle to make a water-tight seal, but oh boy, that is a serious milestone in the history of wine. Glass-blowing technology improved in the 17th Century and along with their new cork closures, bottles became the norm. Previously, all wine would have been stored and transported in barrels or clay amphorae and without a good seal, those wines had a relatively short life span. This in part explains the popularity of fortified wines like Sherry, Madeira and Port, because the high alcohol content allowed the wine to travel long distances and be kept for years without spoiling. But suddenly, this was possible for unfortified wine as well! Bottles were thusly redesigned to have flat sides so you could lie them down, keeping the cork moist, creating a good seal. As people began to notice that the wine would improve with time, the idea of aging wine was born. Vintage became even more important and wine’s identity as a commodity evolved because unlike most agricultural products, it would actually increase in value as time went on (some cheeses are obvious exceptions).

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Fast-forward to the 1980s, bottles closed with corks have only been the global standard for about 250 years (a drop in the bucket of the history of wine) but we already couldn’t fathom fermented grape juice in any other vessel. And then came the screw cap.

As New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc took the world by storm, Kiwis adopted the patented Stelvin Closure (the proper name for the “screw cap”) on a national scale. It started popping up elsewhere too, mostly in the New World: Australia, the United States and later Chile and Argentina. So we got used to it. And for the most part, it was used to close the cheaper bottles: quaffable wines that weren’t meant to age.

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However, in his book: The Science of Wine, Jamie Goode gathers evidence from several studies and tastings and discovers that the screw cap performs better than natural cork (and WAY better than synthetic cork) in nearly every application, including aged fine wines. Plus, it virtually eliminates the existence of “cork taint”, the musty, moldy aromas that plague nearly five percent of all wines bottled under natural cork.

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To confuse things further, we now have even more options. Tetrapaks are fully recyclable and bag-in-box wines can keep your wine fresh for weeks so you can have that doctor-recommended one-glass-a-day. And perhaps the biggest gain of these formats is the massive reduction in carbon footprint: shipping billions of tonnes of glass bottles around the world each year is costly in every sense of the word.

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So why are we hanging onto cork? Well, because it’s romantic. Because of the satisfaction of pulling that little piece of tree out of the bottle is part of the ritual of enjoying a glass of wine. It’s part of the show during your expensive celebratory dinner out.  But wouldn’t it be cool to never be caught without a corkscrew again?

Got a wine question for our expert? Send them to sommontherun@gmail.com and engage with Tim Reed Manessy via Instagram and Twitter via @sommontherun
We’ll post answers to your wine questions on modernmississauga.com

Tim Reed Manessy [Sommelier CAPS, CMS] is a wine instructor at George Brown College, restaurant consultant, private & corporate event specialist and really annoying at a dinner party.