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A Little History: How Corks and Bottles Revolutionized Wine

Wine has had some fascination innovations over the centuries, which begs the question: What are the most revolutionary improvements to wine making in the last 500 years? Two items that we take for granted stand out – the wine bottle and the cork.

It has been known since the time of the Romans that wines changed when stored exposed to air and some wines improved with age. Until the 17th century, wine was aged and stored in barrels (since bottles as we know them did not exist). Barrels are not air tight allowing even more air in as you draw out the wine to drink. Air is wine’s enemy given that it first allows oxidation then eventually the entry of bacteria that transform it into vinegar. Needless to say, neither state is desirable. So, how to keep wine drinkable? A relatively strong, air tight storage container, like a glass bottle, was needed. French glass bottles existed at the time, but they were too fragile to store wine. They were relegated to vessels to take the wine from the barrel to the table.

Enter the English, who in the early 1600s began to make a darker, stronger glass using coal instead of wood to fire their glass foundries. This became known as “English glass” and produced bottles strong enough to store wine. The dilemma remaining was the inferior stoppers used made of oil soaked rags, leather, or even wood (sometimes sealed with wax). All these failed to stop air from entering the bottle. Then the English rediscovered something the Greeks and Romans had written about called cork. Cork is a tree bark from Portugal and Spain that has unique properties. It can be harvested and then grow back, but, most importantly, pressure can reduce its size dramatically due to cork’s cellular structure. This allows it to be cut into a cylindrical shape and compressed before inserting it as a stopper. Magic then ensues because that same cellular structure allows it to re-expand sealing the neck of the bottle and, voila, a virtually airtight closure. By the 1730s, the cork had become the standard bottle closure.

These innovative improvements prevented oxidation and allowed superior wines to age gracefully under cork. Hence, wine lovers owe a huge debt to the 17th and 18th century English wine connoisseurs and merchants who changed the wine world. Give them silent thanks the next time you pull a cork with nary a worry of having vinegar in your glass!

As usual, my ratings are based on a 5 star system developed by Michael Broadbent: 5 stars: Outstanding; 4 stars: Very good; 3 stars: Good; 2 stars: Moderately good; 1 star: Not very good, but not bad; No stars: Poor.

Domaine Vieux Vauvert Vouvray Sec 2019 ★★★½+ $18.95 (Vintages)
Vouvray is a wine from the Loire Valley in France that is made from Chenin Blanc. Stylistically, it can be made into sweet, dry, or even sparkling wines. This is a full bodied version shows intense mineral with apple, pear, stone fruits, and citrus followed by a long finish with some toast and cream notes. Even though dry, it has enough residual sugar to stand up to spicy fare. Bring on some jerk chicken or Thai shrimp.

Les Hauts de Lagarde Bordeaux Blanc 2019★★★½+ $18.95 (Vintages)
This organic white consists of a typical Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon that displays intense minerality connecting it to the vineyard’s limestone soil. With no oak aging, it presents fresh flavours of lemon, gooseberry, fennel, and green herbs tinged with stone fruits and honey. The wine’s relatively full bodied nature and acidity marries it gracefully with rich seafood like salmon and shrimp, herbed roast chicken, and potatoes au gratin.

Lazarra Bianco Secco NV ★★★½ $17.95 (LCBO)
A fresh Ontario sparkling made as an homage to Prosecco by the Speck Brothers of Henry of Pelham and named after their great grandmother. Light bodied and flavours of lemon, Granny Smith apple, lime and grapefruit peel predominate with a long finish. It would match nicely with East Asian cuisine or charcuterie.

Pierre Sparr Brut Réserve Crémant d’Alsace NV ★★★½+ $18.95 (Vintages)
Any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region in France must be called Crémant like this one from Alsace. This is made in the Traditional Method, as is Champagne; so, it produces a sparkler with fine streams of bubbles and a rich, toasty creaminess. The grape used is Pinot Blanc, which enlivens this dry wine with notes of yellow and green apple, lemon, grapefruit peel, and florals. It would be an excellent pour before dinner by itself or with appetizers.

Valpantena Torre del Falasco Valpolicella Ripasso 2018 ★★★★ $18.95 (Vintages)
Ripasso is a winemaking technique that takes Valpolicella (from the Veneto region) and then introduces the lees of Amarone into the wine. There is enough residual sugar in those lees to allow a second fermentation that produces a bigger, richer wine. This one is already showing its complexity with intense notes of dried blackberry, spiced plum, raisin, red currant, red cherry, strawberry jam, tobacco, fennel, and vanilla. It will showcase its aromas better with decanting. The generous body and tannic structure make in enjoyable winter wine to be served with lasagna or grilled meats.

Yalumba The Strapper GSM 2016 ★★★★+ $19.95 (Vintages)
Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (GSM) are the calling card grapes of the Southern Rhone although this wine is from Australia’s Barossa Valley. Note that the label states Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro, which are synonymous names for the aforementioned grapes. This is an excellent, full bodied take on Southern Rhone style with plenty of strawberry jam, plum, leather, raspberry, black pepper, earth, vanilla, smoke, sage, and cedar. Great paired with steak with roasted garlic and herbs or your favourite pizza.

The Bean Coffee Pinotage 2018 ★★★½ $15.95 (Vintages)
Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that thrives in South Africa and is not found much outside that country. This wine is well named since it does indeed have coffee, blackberry, cocoa, vanilla, and spice with a dry, well balanced, full bodied character and the structure to work with bold, flavourful foods. It’s unique, good value, and delicious matched with lamb, game, or mushroom risotto.

Adamo Gamay Noir Unoaked Huebel Grape Estates 2018 ★★★★ $19.95 (Vintages)
Adamo is located in the Hockley Valley, but the fruit used here is from Niagara. Their talented winemaker, Shauna White, has guided along this excellent Ontario Gamay that showcases the spiciness of the grape. So much so, it actually resembles Pinot Noir with its medium body plus high acidity combined with ripe red cherry, raspberry, red currant, cranberry, and intense spice. Excellent with tomato based dishes and cheese plates.

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