03 Dec No Bottles and Corks?
It used to be that you could identify a lot of things about a wine by just seeing the bottle…not the label, just the bottle. The size, the length of the neck and shape of the shoulders told you, in many cases, the wine’s region of origin. This, in turn, let you know the probable grape varietals in the wine and perhaps a bit about the style of the wine. It is easy to pick out a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne bottle for example. Of course this is not a perfect science… in fact it only worked for about ten different regions, mostly in France, and even then, many regions around the world use similar, sometimes identical bottle types for very different wines. So, how valuable is this talent for bottle spotting? Not at all. So, I need not despair that bottle shapes are becoming even less indicators of the contents and that bottles themselves may be disappearing.
No bottles? Whoa! I exaggerate. Most wine will still be packaged in bottles for a long time to come. But significant changes are in the air.
It has not escaped my attention that for many years wine has been sold in juice cartons or the bag-in-box with a spigot. Although shocking to me at first, this is really just the economical extension of the jug. It all started with winemakers bottling their lesser wine (wine made on the estate from lesser quality grapes, not worthy of the estate label) in the cheaper large format jug. This opened the market for jug wine and the cooperatives, which buy grapes from many growers and make regional (worldwide) tablewines, stepped in and have had great selling success with large format bottles.
The cooperatives around the world have been at the forefront of lots of new packaging. It was primarily cooperatives that started brand naming and innovative labeling, among other marketing tools used to promote everyday drinking. The cartons of varying sizes (not just the standard 750ml which may be too much for a dinner for two) and the bag-in-box have been successful here and in many countries, including several in Europe. Wines that are not complex enough to age in the bottle, and are meant to be drunk young do not need to be stored in bottles. The box can be put in the fridge and you just press the spigot to pour a glass. It lasts for days without deteriorating. Very practical.
As a traditionalist, I was put off by this at first, but learned quickly, that for everyday wines this can be a good solution. I was ready to accept the boxes for large barbeques and picnics and the like. Recently, though, I have been reading about glass shortages in Europe. It seems that three major bottle-making factories (two in France and one in Spain) have closed this year. This shortage is encouraging the European winemakers to consider more of the carton type packaging. We can expect to see more of it in the next year. I don’t expect to see any appellation, denomination controlled wines in any other form than a bottle, but many of those vins de pays and brand name wines will pop up in carton.
Of course, I am sure you have noticed that many of the wines in bottles have departed from the pure classic in another way….corks. They are disappearing from a lot of wines. Once again, this does not apply to very fine and complex wines from any country. For a complex wine to achieve its peak, it requires time in the bottle. Some wines can age for many many years in the bottle (I have some 1982 Bordeaux that are still not quite ready), while others do well with one to five years. The keys are the bottle, which will not impart any flavors nor allow anything inside; and the cork, which is not totally airtight. Small amounts of oxygen seep in through the cork to promote the aging process.
The issue is that real corks are expensive. It is a limited world resource
(the cork tree) and along process to turn the bark into corks. But corks are essential and have been the single closure medium used for centuries. Here’s a fly in the ointment: not only are they expensive, but also they fail almost 10% of the time. Holy frijoles! This means that 10% of the wine bottles with corks are “corked”, a condition that smells moldy and tastes bad too. Any wineshop will refund your money if you get a corked bottle. This is quite an expense for winemakers. This is why the synthetic cork was invented (not to mention the famous screwtop also). For wines meant to be drunk young, the synthetic cork or screwtop work perfectly…no corked bottles, ever.
I am not generally known to rush toward new innovations in traditional products. I do associate wine drinking with pulling corks out of bottles…and I always will I suppose. That said I have enjoyed many bottles recently with synthetic corks and even a screw top or two. They come in handy when you want to serve different wines with each course but cannot finish each bottle.
I have even tried a nice little sauvignon blanc poured from a spigot in the bag-in-box at my friend’s house in Paris last month. I was hesitant at first, but realized that when in Paris I must do as the Parisians do. I survived.
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