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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I recently had a wonderful time (not) of trying to get through a wax capsule to uncork a bottle of wine. Why do some producers choose to use wax capsules, and what is the best way to remove them?
—Rob M., Santa Cruz, Calif.
I have great fun getting through these too (not). The primary reason for using capsules of any kind is to assure consumers that the wine has not been tampered with by man nor beast. It also dresses up the bottle and hides signs of seepage.
But why wax? Most producers I checked with said that the use of wax capsules is a way to signify to consumers the amount of handcrafting that goes into their wines. Wax capsules give each bottle a slightly individual look, and are usually individually hand-dipped.
Clos Mimi winemaker Tim Spear says, "At first the wax was about elegance, aesthetics and having an old-fashioned seal. Then the wax began to signify the labor-intensive and hands-on winegrowing practices. I like the fact that wax will sense heat damage well. I like the fact that wax protects the cork's moisture content better than a tin foil for improved cellaring. Lastly, I like to think it's a little more romantic to remove the wax in the first place."
Winemaker Greg Brewer points out that there are two different types of wax capsules. The older style—which sounds like the kind you experienced—is very brittle, and either needs to be chipped away or to have the wax heated, over a candle flame or under hot water, before you can make your way to the cork.
Thankfully, you don't see these nearly as much as you see the newer food-grade, wax-like polymers that Greg and others use, which is rather soft and pliable. I took a survey of producers that use this style of wax, and they all said the same thing: just pretend it's not there.
Estimate where the center of the cork is through the wax, and stick your waiter-style corkscrew through this point. (Don't try this method with a lever-pull or ah-so type of corkscrew.)
You might also try warming the top of the bottle in your palm for 20 or 30 seconds prior to opening. And I'd trim the wax near the lip of the bottle so that any remnants won't interfere with pouring (or fall in). As far as those wax discs that sometimes sit on top of a cork, I usually remove those if I can before opening the bottle of wine. Too much wax can build up on a corkscrew's worm.
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