In the wide and wonderful world of wine, there are numerous choices to consider. Red or white, Old World or New, decanted or bottle-poured, and countless other variables can make each trip to the wine shop a dizzying experience. One of the most visible differences when purchasing wine, however, is the seal used to keep the juice in the bottle.
Throughout history, people have been sealing wines to keep them as fresh as possible. Some of the earliest wine preservation methods date back to ancient civilizations, including the Romans, who would pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of their wines to keep it from oxidizing. Most wine seals used today are actually quite modern innovations in the long and storied world of wine. Today, corks, screw-tops, and crown caps are three bottle seals that have found widespread use throughout the contemporary wine industry, and each offers its own advantages with its own unique history.
The most recognizable and widely-adopted wine stopper, corks have been used to bottle wine for centuries. According to disputed legend, the earliest evidence for modern-style, tightfitting wine bottle corks dates back to the late 17th century when Benetictine monk Dom Pérignon — the same Dom Pérignon for which the champagne brand is named — invented them as a new way to seal wine. Previously, French winemakers had used rags soaked in olive oil, or wooden blocks coated with resin, to seal wine bottles.
Cork is made from the bark of the cork oak tree, Quercus suber, and can be a very sustainable resource. 100% natural corks are entirely biodegradable and compostable, meaning they don’t have to end up in a landfill. Additionally, the cork oak trees aren’t cut down to harvest their bark, meaning the trees can continue to produce more raw materials to make wine corks for years to come.
After nearly 300 years of wine world dominance, screw-on caps made their debut in the wine world in the mid 1960s. The innovation came when an Australian, Peter Wall, hired French wine company Le Bouchage Mécanique to come up with an alternative seal. The amount of tainted corks on the market frustrated Wall, and he commissioned the French to solve what he saw as a plague in the wine world that tainted corks caused: ruined wine.
Today, screw cap bottles dominate the wine market in Australia and New Zealand, with the market down under seeing screw cap wines making up over 90% of inventory. Proponents of screw cap wine bottles illustrate the convenience of never needing a corkscrew, the cost-savings of making screw caps which makes wine cheaper, and — of course — no more spoiled wine.
William Painter invented the crown cap, the traditional seal on beer bottles and glass sodas, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1892. Before his invention, beer and soda were often sealed with corks, which would dry out, shrink, and pop themselves.
Painter’s crown cap changed that. Made of metal, easily disposable, and able to withstand a large amount of gaseous pressure, crown caps quickly replaced corks on fizzy drinks — including sparkling wines. Today, champagnes of all stripes use crown caps as a seal before they’re disgorged, which is the process wherein the winemaker removes dead yeast cells from the champagne bottle. The crown cap’s ability to withstand pressure makes it the ideal seal during this process to keep the champagne from oxidizing. Typically, after disgorgement, the preferred seal for champagne is a cork and wire cage, or muselet.
Contemporary wine makers are beginning to give crown caps new attention as a market-ready seal though, especially among natural wine makers. Often, this is because corks secured by muselets can become dangerous projectiles. Makers of pét-nat wines, which are natural sparkling wines, typically choose crown caps as a seal to allow the wine to ferment in-bottle and remain enclosed. Interestingly, natural wines that don’t fizz are also being released with crown caps as well.
Sealing the Deal
For as long as people have been drinking wine, we have been trying to keep it as fresh as possible. Through innovation, trial, and triumphs, the last few hundred years have made wine a global industry reliant on confidently keeping the wine in the bottle. Corks, screw caps, and crown caps have cemented themselves as the best possible wine seals for their ease of use, low costs, and proven ability to keep wine tasting fresh and juicy. Next time you make a trip to the wine shop, take stock of how your chosen bottle is topped because its seal is part of an intentional design and fascinating history.