Wine capsules or foils are protective shields placed over the neck and cork of a wine bottle. Like the latex prophylactic sheaths sold in mini-marts, wine capsules protect against unplanned reproduction and disease transmission. Wine sheaths prevent bacterial conception and deter weevils, rodents and other little nippers from gnawing away at the cork. Though the terms capsule and foil are interchangeable, when referring to sparkling wine, the term foil is more typically used. Unlike condoms, which were once made of lambskin, linen or even tortoise shell, wine capsules were historically made of lead and from the 17th century until the 1990’s most fine wines – especially from Europe – were sheathed in lead.
There are many advantages to lead. Its malleability makes it easy to contour around the neck and simple to remove via cutting or peeling. But when research began to demonstrate that trace amounts of lead could linger on the bottle lip, lead capsules began to fall out of favour. These supple capsules met their unequivocal demise when concerns about lead toxicity in the waste stream and landfills moved the USA and the European Union to prohibit their use in 1993.
Tin has become the modern alternative to lead due to its capacity to accommodate intricate designs, but tin capsules too are becoming endangered as increased demand for tin has caused costs to escalate. Despite price increases, tin is still preferred for high-end and boutique wineries, whereas producers selling wine under HK$200 are more likely to consider less expensive options. Many alternatives have emerged, such as aluminium, plastic and paper. Other bottles take a quick dip in sealing wax. Most (wine) lovers find these modern capsules more irritating that the old-fashioned lead sheath primarily because they are not as easy to remove. Plastic challenges the sharpest knife, alternative foils shred and wax seals crumble when removing.
Capsules neither keep air out of the bottle nor seal wine within, but bottles are considered naked without one. Label designers argue that length, colour and texture are important as sheaths make a subconscious difference to the overall experience. Designs on the tip of the shield can be helpful in differentiating reclining bottles. In France, wine intended for the domestic market is required to be sheathed in a capsule embossed with a government seal, known as a capsule congé, as proof that relevant taxes have been paid. These insignias also indicate the wine’s quality status. While simple, one-colour sheaths can seem dull and unexciting, smaller wineries lean toward these plain capsules as printing can triple the cost. It might be interesting to examine what kind of capsules you have been collecting.
While capsules or foils once served an important role, in todays’ hygienic cellars, the usefulness of these prophylactics is becoming obsolete and producers might want to consider alternative capsule uses. Their latex brethren, for example, are also used to protect iPhones in the rain, to enhance the grip on bicycle handlebars, to keep dirt out of rifle barrels and, in a pinch, to serve as toothbrush carry-cases. However, in the latter case, we hope they’re also being used as directed.