A Lesser-Seen Closure in Sparkling Wine | Wine Enthusiast
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For Sparkling Wines’ Secondary Fermentation, Closure Choice Can Have a Huge Impact

The closure on a bottle of sparkling wine is often a clue as to what’s inside. Bottles under crown caps are often an indication the wine should be consumed now, or in the next few years at most. Conversely, traditionally minded producers almost always present their sparkling wines under mushroom cork, believing it is the best way to ensure optimum ageability for long-term cellaring.

But there’s another, less visible choice producers make behind the scenes that some believe impacts the flavor and character of the final product just as much as their ultimate closure choice. It concerns what happens behind closed doors during the second fermentation—and it also involves corks and caps. This stage is key in the traditional sparkling winemaking process: It happens once the wines have been blended and bottled, when a liqueur de tirage—a blend of still wine, sugar and yeast—is added to the bottle to naturally create the bubbles within. And there are those producers who opt to conduct this process under cork, while others opt for the crown.

The crown bottle cap was invented in 1891 by a mechanical engineer named William Painter and patented in 1892. Since then, the inexpensive, simple cap has been used by many sparkling wine producers during secondary fermentation as an efficient and less expensive alternative to the cork.

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But the cork and the crown do produce different results, according to producers speaking from their own experience and observations and analytical studies. One such study, published in the South African Journal of Enology and Viticulture in 2021, compared bottles fermented under cork and cap, analyzing bottle pressure, phenolic acids, sensory attributes and other aspects of the wine’s development. The study found that the two approaches created different wines.

The authors noted that bottles sealed with corks during fermentation produced smaller bubbles and delivered a longer aftertaste. This method also produced wines that took longer to lose their trademark effervescence after being poured.

Close up on Graham Beck corks
Close up on Graham Beck corks / Images Courtesy of Graham Beck

Team Cork

Even the most cork-enamored producers see a place for the crown cap in their less expensive lines or those wines created to be consumed immediately.

Pieter Ferreira, COO of Graham Beck in South Africa’s Breede River Valley, explains that he took part in the previously cited study of crown- vs. cork-capped wines during second fermentation. “There were differences, including improved bubble texture and an increase in the perceived wine complexity of wine fermented under cork,” he says. “The ‘cork effect’ becomes more noticeable the longer the wine is in contact with the cork.”

Ferreira is now in the midst of an analysis with the team at Amorim Cork in Portugal, comparing the differences between wines created under cap and cork. Though, for now, the whole of Graham Beck’s portfolio available in the U.S. has been fermented under crown cap, Ferreira says he’s excited to share the new cork-fermented lines in the near future.

“We know already that there are at least 12 different tannin flavor molecules under cork not found in wines under crown cap,” he says. “In our newly established Artisan Collection, we do a 100% fermentation under cork. Currently we have a single-vineyard Chardonnay and a 100% Pinot Meunier under cork fermentation and we are thinking of releasing these toward the end of 2024.”

Bertrand Lhôpital, cellar master of Champagne Telmont, concurs. “We ferment some of our lines under cork,” Lhôpital says. “You can only feel a real difference, and the benefits, after five or six years of aging, which means that it’s only interesting for some very specific cuvée, where it adds complexity.”

Corks are up to three times as expensive as screw and crown caps, so it makes sense for some producers to utilize them during second fermentations only for rarefied cuvées with prices that reflect the cost of production.

Goldeneye Winery vineyard
Goldeneye Winery vineyard / Image Courtesy of Goldeneye Winery

Team Crown

While many sparkling wine houses would never consider sealing their bubbles in anything but cork, using a crown cap during second ferment is common practice.

At Goldeneye Winery in Philo, California, meanwhile, winemaker Kristen McMahan loves what the cap brings to her wine.

“First of all, there’s no possibility of cork taint,” McMahan says. “Plus, they are less expensive and highly effective. Our intent with the Anderson Valley Brut Rosé is to produce a fresh, vibrant, bubbly wine that is fruit and minerality driven. When aging for less than 24 months, as we do, both closures perform identically.”

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At Piper-Heidsieck in Reims, France, the team utilizes the crown cap during secondary fermentation to ensure consistency. “The cork will allow more oxygen into the bottle, and you will see more differences from one cork to another, so the aging may be slightly different from one bottle to another,” says Emilien Boutillat, Piper-Heidsieck’s chief winemaker. “With the crown cap, you can choose between different seals and adjust with a lot more precision on the porosity you want.”

Sparkling winemakers have always had one foot rooted in tradition, and the other striding toward the future. As more scientific studies of the effect of corks on the flavor and texture of sparkling wine emerge, and crown technology evolves, there will, undoubtedly, be more passionate proclamations issued, and perhaps some members of one team will switch to the other. But declaring a clear winner? At this point, that appears to be unlikely.

This article originally appeared in the 2023 Best of Year issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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