Around 6000 BC the invention of pottery provided the means to decant wine from fermentation vessels into smaller containers, and in the process leave behind most of the flakes of grapeskins, dead yeast and other sediments.
The ancients learned that exposure to air would quickly turn wine bad and the Egyptians of 1500 BC were sealing amphora with clay with straws poking out to let carbon dioxide escape during fermentation. The finished wine would be sealed in new amphora and left to age.
Tutankhamun was accompanied to his afterlife with wine-filled pots sealed with clay bearing the vintage date, vineyard and winemaker’s name.
In Greece they used tree resin to stick pottery caps to wine pots. They subsequently found resin protected against bacteria when in contact with wine and soon appreciated the taste of what became retsina.
The Romans tried using the raw bark of oak trees—cork—to close amphora, fixing it with resin or pitch, but cork was forgotten after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The invention of wooden barrels replaced amphora and their bungholes were sealed with leather or cloth soaked in olive oil. Olive oil was also used to keep out air by floating it on top of wine in containers.
But none were entirely satisfactory means of keeping out air and wine was best drunk young, or mixed with honey and herbs to disguise rank flavours.
England had been using cork to sole shoes since 1307 but it took nearly 300 years before it was used as a stopper in liquid jars. Kenem Digby’s 1632 innovation of heating furnaces with coal instead of wood enabled the production of strong and relatively inexpensive glass. These squat blown bottles, like squashed globes with a thin neck sticking up, had a rim around the opening for fastening string to hold a cork. Known as ‘English Bottles’ they, and the technology, rapidly spread.
But there were two problems. Firstly the amount of liquid the bottle could hold depended on how much puff the glassblower had, and no two bottles were identical. It was made illegal to sell wine in bottles for this reason. The second problem is one we still have more than 300 years later. As John Woolidge wrote in his 1676 Treatise of Cider: “Much liquor being absolutely spoiled through the only defect in the cork.”
Although a great deal of work has been done by the cork industry to improve their processes, still between 3-5% of bottles closed with cork are tainted.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.