When I was first getting into wine, I purchased a bottle of Chardonnay from the Jura that came highly recommended. (And rightly so; it remains one of my favorite bottles.) Inspired in no small part by the twin “self-care” and “treat yourself” movements, I attempted to open the wine in bed, while queuing up a favorite movie on Netflix. The bottle had a hard wax seal, something I hadn’t seen before. I decided to proceed as if it weren’t there, screwing the worm of my corkscrew through the wax.
This turned out to be a mistake. The wax crumbled, spreading tiny yellow flakes all over my freshly washed bedding, many of which I would unearth for days to come. While I’ve since opened many wax-sealed bottles since that mess — though never again in bed, I’ll say — the question remains for the wax-seal novice: What’s the best way to open a bottle with a wax seal? And why is it there in the first place?
The wax seal stems from both tradition and necessity. Before corks were used, wax was one means of sealing wine bottles for storage and shipment. Even after corks became the standard, they were often unreliable. Wine would leak out and oxygen would sneak in, harming the wine, so wax was used to create a stronger, more airtight seal, particularly for bottles meant for longer aging.
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Today wax is mostly used for aesthetic purposes, as corks are much more adept at properly sealing wine bottles, even for long periods of time. But some producers, such a Rioja’s R. López de Heredia, still feel that an additional seal is necessary.
“Experience has shown us … that no matter how good the cork’s seal, it can never be perfect … unless it has an additional external cap to protect it,” the winery says on their website. They assert that sealing wax allows them to hold their top wines for decades without the need to re-cork the wine. Wax seals also provide an additional guarantee of the wine’s authenticity, as it would be difficult to falsify the contents of the bottle by opening and resealing it.
So what’s the best way to deal with these pesky wax seals? It depends on the kind of wax used. The easiest to deal with is a handy “false” wax seal that has a built-in tab for easy removal and exposure of the cork, like the foil of a Champagne bottle. This is a fairly recent innovation, so older bottles are unlikely to have tabs.
Most wax-sealed wines are covered in a soft wax that may almost feel malleable. There are two ways to approach these bottles, both of which involve a classic waiter’s wine key. Some suggest cutting through the wax with the corkscrew knife as you would a foil. If the wax is cut cleanly, it’s easy to peel off the top. However, most wines sealed with soft wax can simply be opened as if there were no wax at all. Simply insert the corkscrew straight through the wax and pull out the cork normally. If the wax has an invisible perforation designed to come apart cleanly, like in the wines of Arianna Occhipinti, it will easily lift off. If not, the cork will still pull through; it may just be slightly more difficult. Luckily, there is usually little risk of crumbling.
Older bottles, or those sealed with hard wax (such as the aforementioned Jura Chardonnay), are a bit trickier. It’s advisable to remove the wax that sits directly over the cork before attempting to open, as the wax will otherwise likely crumble or the corkscrew may not be strong enough to dig through the seal at all. Use the knife of the corkscrew to gently chip away the hard wax until the cork is exposed. There may still be remnants of wax left on the bottle, so be careful when pulling the cork to brush away any dusty wax pieces that might threaten to fall in the bottle.
If a piece of wax falls inside the bottle, not to worry; just pour a taste of the wine quickly and decisively into the glass. The wax should fall right into the glass with that first taste, allowing you to remove it before serving the rest of the bottle. Alternatively, pour the wine into a decanter through a cheesecloth.
Above all, don’t let a wax seal cause you to shy away from a wine you’ve been dying to try. You never know — it just may be a new favorite bottle.