Fizzy, fermented, and topped with a crown: taking a peek below sparkling wine’s iconoclastic new closure

By Jesse on January 11, 2010

Over the years, the Young Winos have reliably held forward-thinking stances on a number of contentious issues, including, among others, the ongoing shift away from corks and towards artificial closures. In particular, we’ve applauded the Stelvin screwcap for its comparatively lower rate of spoilage, even as it’s been derided by winemakers we’ve met on account of environmental or tradition-based concerns (as well as by wine snobs we’ve met on account of pretention-based concerns).  But while the cyllandrical still wine cork may be losing popularity, the Champagne cork always seemed a bit more immutable.  No one would ever seal a bottle of bubbly with anything but the classic mushroom-shaped cork and wire ensemble, would they?  After all, besides being quelle traditionelle, the corks are incredibly fun to pop open, no matter which method you employ to do it (click here to watch a video of us testing out three of them).

You can imagine our surprise, then, when we received a sample bottle of the 2007 Municipal Winemakers “Fizz” Sparkling Shiraz (Santa Barbara County) and discovered that it had been sealed with a crown cap — the type found on your favorite long-neck bottle of brew.  While screwcaps may be taking the wine world by storm, the crown cap still has quite a bit of catching up to do.  In a recent article in Wines & Vines, Domaine Chandon PR director Sue Furdek explained the crown cap’s image problem: “Consumers love and want the ‘pop’ when they open bubbly,” she said. “There’s only modest acceptance of alternatives to cork in still wine, and even less with sparkling.”

As has been well-documented in various media, the Winos will open any closure as long as it allows us access to the wine within, so we had no compunction about grabbing the bottle opener and procuring ourselves some fizzy red goodness.  In the interest of satisfying our journalistic curiosity, however, we decided to contact winemaker Dave Potter to learn why he bucked tradition and bound his bubbles below a bottlecap.  What follows is a journey into the mad mind of the Municipal Winemaker.

YW: Why did you choose to use an artificial closure for your first vintage of sparkling wine?  Isn’t it more fun to pop open a cork?

DP: Popping the cork is fun, but so is popping a cap – at least I think so.  At any rate, it’s the drinking of the wine part that is the most fun, and it’s the wine in the bottle that I am most interested in.  Besides, I don’t use corks on any of my other wines because I feel that they do not perform as well as the Stelvin screwcap.  Nothing bums me out more than spending good money on a bottle of wine that the cork has spoiled.  The crown seal is, in my opinion, a better closure than the cork as well.

901_0167.jpgYW: Why the crown cap?  Why not one of those hard plastic artificial corks?

DP: The crown cap is actually a great closure!  It’s what most Champagne houses use during tirage when the wine is undergoing secondary fermentation in the bottle, as well as aging on the lees.  Most Champagne houses (Vueve, Dom, etc.) have their caves full of wines that age with a crown cap for years at a time.  It holds the pressure in very well, forms a great seal, and will not contaminate the wine like a cork could. Besides, plastic corks suck.

YW:  Being that as it may, the Fizz, at $34, is the most expensive bottle in your lineup.  Weren’t you concerned that customers might balk at a product in the thirty-dollar range that’s sealed with a closure usually associated with soda and beer?

DP: Actually, the Fizz is selling really well!  It’s the most expensive bottle in my lineup simply because it cost me the most to make.  I try to be pretty honest and fair with my pricing because I want to make wines that are opened and enjoyed, not collected and stored.  Because I don’t work in a Champagne house, or have access to the really efficient gear, all of the bottle work was done slowly by hand – riddling and disgorging, etc.  It took a lot of time for aging in barrel and bottle, as well as more expensive glass, high losses at disgorging, and a ton of hard work.  Unfortunately, what costs me more, costs you more.

I know there are people out there who will think it is cheap / bad wine because it doesn’t come with a cork, but those are probably the same people who wouldn’t pay $34 for a bottle of wine made by the “Municipal Winemakers.”  I do think, though, that most of the people who are into what I do won’t really mind, and to go a step further, might actually be attracted to it.

901_0170.jpgYW: Do you feel like a closure revolution is underway?  Will we soon be seeing crown caps on bottles of Champagne?

DP: Well, I do have to admit that this wasn’t my idea.  I’m not the first person to put sparkling wine under a crown seal (and I’m not even the first person to put sparkling shiraz under a crown seal).  Like I mentioned before, crown caps are used by most Champagne houses during production and cave aging, but are finished with corks so that consumers can pop ’em.  Champagne is seen as a luxury item, and I think that there are many producers who don’t want to risk their luxury image.  A few years back, there was a great article in Decanter about Chandon in Australia bottling one of their top sparkling wines under crown cap without telling corporate management in France because they would never agree with it. [Read the article here.]

I guess the challenge is trying to reconcile the functionality with the romance.  In my opinion, though, I think there is something very romantic about a wine that you know has not spoiled from the closure.  I also actually prefer the look of the cap to the cork.

mail.jpgmail-1.jpgDave sent us the two photos to the left just to prove how stylish the crown cap can be when compared to traditional cork closures, offering his opinion that “the cap has a cool confidence about it.”  We’d tend to agree.  More important, as he pointed out, is what’s inside the bottle — and the Fizz bottle was certainly filled with something delicious.  A nose of licorice and dried plum led us into a full, frothy palate of blackberries, charcoal, and leather.  Tannins were light, as was the sweetness (despite the wine receiving a dosage of still wine and port before being sealed, according to Dave’s dependably informative back-label).  Andrea found that it had “a pucker to it, with a friendly finish,” and even with the light tannins, the sparkler was perfectly refreshing.  A great success, we thought, and an auspicious victory for lovers of crown caps everywhere.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

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