Wine capsules or foils are protective shields placed over the neck and cork of a bottle. Like the latex prophylactic sheaths sold in chemists, wine capsules protect against unplanned reproduction and disease transmission. Wine sheaths prevent bacterial conception and deter weevils, rodents and other nippers from gnawing at the cork.
Though the terms 'capsule' and 'foil' are interchangeable, when referring to sparkling wine, 'foil' is more typically used. Unlike condoms, which were once made of lambskin, linen and even tortoise shell, wine capsules were historically made of lead and from the 17th century until the 1990's most fine wines - particularly 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 by cutting or peeling. But when research began to demonstrate that trace amounts of the metal 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 waste streams and landfills prompted the US 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 the metal 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 find these modern capsules more irritating than the old-fashioned lead sheath primarily because they are not as easy to remove; plastic thwarts the sharpest knife, alternative foils shred and wax seals crumble.
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 bottles that have been laid flat.
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 conge, as proof that taxes have been paid. These insignias also indicate the wine's quality. While simple, one-colour sheaths can seem dull and unexciting, smaller wineries lean towards 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 today's 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 iPods and microphones from the rain, to improve bicycle handgrips, to keep dirt out of rifle barrels, and is used to make toothbrush carry-cases.