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Le Bouchon: Who Invented the Champagne Cork?


Le Bondon - the ancestor of the bouchon


Dom Pérignon's global acclaim today is sometimes attributed to his role in introducing effervescence to Champagne. However, some argue that his significant contribution actually lies in the introduction of cork stoppers to the Champagne region. Supposedly, this innovative practice allowed for the preservation and secure sealing of wine from the previous harvest.



Historically, early champagne bottles were sealed using wooden plugs known as "bondon", wrapped in linen soaked with oil and secured by oiled hemp twine and later sealed with wax. This made cork stoppers the preferred closure. It was treated with a blend of tallow, wax, and resin, often pigmented with shades like Prussian blue or ochre to protect it from external influences. The first markings were done by Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin: a small five-pointed star on the top of the cork used during the passage of a comet observed in 1811 for a cuvée named "vin de la comète".



Evolution of Cork Stoppers and Modernisation


The emergence of champagne corks as we know them today dates back to 1827. Initially, they were crafted from thick square cork pieces, softened in hot water, and driven into the bottle neck with mallets before being secured with twine. Subsequently, the process was mechanised with the introduction of corking machines in the 1840s.


The modern corking method as it exists today, involving a sealed cork, a muselet plate (also referred to as a capsule), and a metal muselet to affix the cork, was established in 1844. This innovative combination was patented by Alphonse Jacquesson.


From the 1870s onwards, champagne brands began showcasing the vintage prominantly in their marketing. Concurrently, this practice of indicating the vintage commenced with its inclusion on the cork. However, some producers only gradually embraced this approach, with Charles Heidsieck adopting it in 1889 and Pommery in 1892.


Sourcing, Advancements, and Plastic Cork Experiment


Champagne corks primarily hail from Catalonia and Andalusia, known for their exceptional cork quality. Notably, during the 19th century, a significant migration from Catalonia to Champagne occurred. Many individuals from Catalonia ventured to Champagne, taking up roles related to cork processing within champagne houses or the cork factories established by Spanish immigrants. One notable example is Oller, now a major supplier to the champagne industry, with headquarters spanning Reims, Girona, and Badajoz.


A cork tree in Portugal with 30 years of bark growth



High-quality Spanish corks, particularly those from the mountainous and arid Catalonia region, are widely acknowledged for their tightly compressed cork cells. Since 1936, Portuguese corks have also become part of the production due to disruptions in cork supply triggered by the Spanish Civil War.


Corks come in three forms: they can be solid or composed of two segments bonded with gutta-percha, a natural latex adhesive, or agglomerated. For premium cuvées, you'll discover natural corks made up of four or more assembled pieces. At one end of the bouchon, complete cork discs are attached, with the finest-quality cork reserved for the outermost disc, which directly interacts with the wine. This innovative approach, originating in the 1920s, effectively met the growing global demand for cork by producing sturdy closures capable of withstanding the pressures exerted by powerful machinery.

However, the prevailing practice for most champagne bottles is to use agglomerated corks, mainly manufactured in the Champagne region. These composite corks are created by blending adhesive and high-quality cork waste, forming a solid cylindrical structure known as the "manche." This development ensured wine stability during prolonged storage and notably reduced issues like cork taint, resulting in significant quality improvements.



In the 1950s, an experiment involving plastic champagne corks was undertaken. But, unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it) it turned out they let too much oxygen in. The permeability of plastic to oxygen was detrimental to the wines during their time sur lattes, rendering it suitable for young wines but unsuitable for ageing. Consequently, plastic corks were discontinued, particularly as they failed to align aesthetically with the distinguished image associated with champagne.


 

The collective effort that created the champagne cork resulted in enhanced quality, the incorporation of vintage markings, but ost importantly the emergence of an icon. It now stands as a symbol of celebration and festivity, so profoundly significant that it has given rise to an intersting movement: buttappœnophilia. The collection of corks immortalize special moments and pay homage to the timeless legacy of the world's most iconic wine.



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Gold Animate cork (1).jpg
Gold Animate cork (1).jpg