Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pop Goes the Maestro??? Investigating the Future of Champagne Closures

“The Champagne cork hasn't changed for 150 years, so I think it's high time we evolved a bit.” These were the words uttered by Carol Duval-Leroy, head of the Champagne house Duval-Leroy, producer of several of this author’s favorite go-to bubblies.

The house of Duval-Leroy, amongst others, are exploring the efficacy of “non traditional closures” to address several issues, a few of which include the long-term sustainability of the cork forests of the world, the loss of product due to the introduction of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or cork taint, and the problems a lot of people have with opening Champagne safely, either struggling with the bottle or putting someone’s eye out as the cork flies across the room at a typical velocity of 45 miles per hour.

The aroma of wet cardboard or freshly poured concrete that signals the presence of TCA drives wine lovers to dump innumerable bottles down the drain. The problem is accentuated in sparkling wines like Champagne, where the 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. This is a rate of failure that would be unacceptable in almost any other industry - what if 5% of all cars produced by a particular manufacturer wouldn't start!?!

Two alternative closures have been marketed recently, the Maestro and the Mytik Diamant. Over the last several years, variations on the traditional Champagne cork have been appearing on the market, such as the cork by Cortex Company, which has a silicon disk fixed to its bottom. The concept is that, when compressed in the neck of the bottle, the silicon disk prevents the wine from any contact with the cork, thus preventing the possibility of TCA taint. (Author’s note: from personal experience, this concept has fallen woefully short on several occasions)

The Diamant is a composite cork; that is, fashioned from bits of cork compressed under pressure. The process utilizes compressed and heated carbon dioxide and, if the manufacturer is to be believed, renders the product 99.99% TCA free, in a process similar to that used to decaffeinate coffee. In the three years since its release, Mytik Diamant has been adopted by nearly 15% of the Champagne market, including renowned houses like Billecart-Salmon and Moét et Chandon.

The Maestro employs an integrated aluminum lever system that opens a concealed crown bottle cap similar to that on a soda or beer bottle. (For those who may not know, the crown cap is already utilized for most of the time the champagne is fermenting and at the winery, and the traditional cork is added as part of the final processing.). As a bonus, the Maestro still gives you that satisfying pop upon opening.

While the Maestro will certainly render Champagnes under its closure free of TCA, Duval Leroy is concerned that there could be some sort of environmental catastrophe that would endanger the supply of natural cork, and it would have a million bottles in the cellar with no alternative closures. (Cork is the bark of an oak tree native to Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, southern France, Italy, and Tunisia, and is a renewable resource, with harvests from a single tree occurring every 10-15 years over a 150 to 250 year lifespan of the tree.).

Given the success of the Stelvin (screw cap) closure (increasing in use ten-fold in the last 7 years) with still (non-bubbly) wines, the manufacturers are confident that cork’s days are numbered in the sparkling wine world as well. Being so tied to tradition and their luxury image, the majority of the Champagne houses may be slow to move toward the new closures, although several, including Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Billecart-Salmon, and Moét et Chandon, have run trials on the Maestro.

If the success of these new-fangled Champagne closures depends on pleasing public and Champenois palates, it could be a long wait.

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