To cork or not to cork: that is the question in the French winemaking region of Champagne, ever since the unveiling earlier this month of a gutsy new Champagne stopper prototype. The Maestro opening system, developed by Alcan Packaging Capsules, is composed of a concealed crown bottle cap fitted with an aluminum lever. It's far easier to use than a conventional stopper no struggling to hold the heavy bottle as you twist, no worrying that you'll take someone's eye out with the cork but it still delivers that satisfying pop upon opening. It's a minirevolution in a region hitherto unswayed by the widespread embrace of screw caps and other deviations from cork closures.
"The Champagne cork hasn't changed for 150 years, so I think it's high time we evolved a bit," says Carol Duval-Leroy, head of Champagne Duval-Leroy, the first Champagne house to trial Maestro-capped bottles. But despite a pressing need for cork alternatives, it may be a while before that spirit of change catches on. (See pictures of beer being brewed.)
For producers like Michel Drappier, the man behind Champagne Drappier, the Maestro seems sensible enough, but he remains attached to the "weight of history and image" behind the traditional Champagne cork. "I'll admit I find this system rather seductive. I have no qualitative arguments against it," he says. "But I have one big reserve I feel the romantic side of Champagne is badly bruised by it."
Despite the mystique the Champenois attach to that pop and whiz of the cork, theirs has long been a love-hate relationship one that the Maestro aims to help smooth over. While the Maestro's ease of use is certainly a selling point, the new stopper's real advantage over cork closures is as a solution to TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the molecule that when present in cork is responsible for wine taint. "TCA is the great scourge of wine," says Peter Liem, the Épernay-based founder of champagneguide.net. "The problem is grave enough that it's becoming necessary to find either a solution to TCA in cork or an alternate closure."
And that need is at its most pressing in Champagne. The aroma of old sneakers or wet newspaper that signals the presence of TCA drives wine lovers to dump grand crus of all stripes down the drain. The problem is accentuated in sparkling wines like Champagne, whose bubbles only serve to volatilize the taint, making it all the more noticeable. Various studies suggest TCA affects anywhere from 1% to 7% of wines, but for Liem, arguing the exact percentage misses the point. "We are talking about a rate of failure this renders wine undrinkable," he says. "What if 2% of all cars wouldn't start, or 2% of CDs wouldn't play? This just wouldn't be acceptable in other industries." (See pictures of whiskey-making.)
Some Champagne producers are starting to agree. Recently, variations on the traditional Champagne cork have been appearing on the market, from the cork by Cortex Company, which has a silicon disk fixed to its bottom to prevent contact with wine, to the Mytik Diamant composite cork. "Our clients don't want to take risks anymore with traditional corks that may be tainted," says Benoît Ecrepont, director-general of Sibel, Mytik Diamant's manufacturer. By employing compressed, heated CO2 in a process similar to the decaffeination of coffee, the unwanted molecules are extracted from natural cork to make it "99.99%" TCA-free. In the three years since its release, Ecrepont says, Mytik Diamant has captured nearly 15% of the Champagne market, including renowned houses like Billecart-Salmon and Moét & Chandon. "I won't hide the fact that turning people over to an innovation like ours in a milieu this conservative wasn't easy," he says. "But in the end, the Champenois will accept an innovation if you can prove its merit."
But for those taking the next step, to noncork stoppers, it's not just about TCA. Duval-Leroy says another reason she's turning to the Maestro is that she doesn't want to gamble her production on the long-term survival of the world's cork forests. "It's frankly worrisome to think that you have a million bottles in the cellar and there could be an ecological catastrophe and you'd have no alternative closures," she says. (See "Champagne's Bubbly Personalities.")
Bruno de Saizieu, sales and marketing director of Maestro-maker Alcan, is confident that cork's reign will end one day. Judging from the success of Alcan's Stelvin wine screw cap whose global sales have skyrocketed from 300 million in 2003 to 3 billion today De Saizieu thinks Champagne will eventually adopt the Maestro system as well. "When we started the Stelvin, there were an enormous number of people who were outraged," he says. "Today, like them or not, screw caps are no longer questioned as viable alternatives around the world. In Champagne it will be the same in a few years."
For the Champagne-producing majority, though, a wait-and-see attitude seems de rigueur. "Even if I'm very convinced, we're going to need some time before we adopt these systems wholesale," says producer Drappier, who has tested both the Mytik Diamant and the Maestro. After all, he asks, what would Champagne Drappier's most famous client have thought? "Charles de Gaulle liked his Champagne bottles as simple as a jar of Mom's homemade jam, so I think he'd have been slow to warm to anything too gadgety." If success for Champagne's cork innovators depends on pleasing public and presidential palates, it could be a long wait.