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Why the "capsule" got the lead out
This sheath (called the "capsule" in French and English) is intended primarily to give the bottle a finished appearance, although it also protects the cork from possible damage.
It might surprise you to know, though, that this seemingly innocuous item was the subject of considerable controversy in recent years. For many generations, wineries routinely used a thin metallic lead foil to make the capsule, choosing lead because it is soft and malleable, producing a thin sheath that hugs the shape of the bottle neck but is easy to peel off and remove.
But lead is seriously poisonous, and as attention was drawn to the dangers of lead in the environment - including lead-based paint in old houses and lead compounds as additives in gasoline - the beady eye of governmental regulators soon fell on the wine-bottle capsule.
In the U.S., the Federal Drug Administration, which governs food-and-beverage safety, reported in 1991 that it intended to ban the use of lead foil on wine bottles, based on studies showing that the foil could contaminate wine poured from the bottle. "The wraps may leave lead residues on the outside rim that are mixed with the wine when it is poured," the FDA announced. "The studies showed that lead levels generally were higher in wines with the lead foil wraps, after pouring, than in wines packaged without lead foil wraps."
Although some observers questioned the validity of the studies because they were conducted on wines poured from bottles that had not been wiped clean after the capsule was removed - a worst-case scenario that wouldn't be likely in the real world - the threat of lead poisoning is serious enough that the industry quickly abandoned lead capsules. By the time that the FDA formally banned lead foil capsules in 1996, they were gone from the market. Most commercial wines nowadays are fitted with capsules made from colored or clear plastic, foils made from metals other than lead, or occasionally sealing wax or no capsule at all.
There is really nothing to fear. But if you have older wines in your collection from vintages preceding the early 1990s, it would be prudent to give the bottle neck a good wipe with a clean cloth before pouring. As a matter of fact, that's not a bad idea no matter what kind of wine you're pouring!
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Outside Argentina and France's Cahors region, Malbec is more often used as a bit player in the Bordeaux blend of grapes than as a standalone variety; even here, this hearty red from R.H. Phillips Vineyard (www.rhphillips.com) actually has 12 percent Cabernet Sauvignon mixed in. "Toasted Head," the winery's line of wines aged in trademark oak barrels, is made noteworthy, they say, because not only the oak barrel staves but their heads or ends are "toasted" or lightly charred to add flavor. Unlike many New World wines, though, Toasted Head isn't so oaky that the wood overwhelms the fruit. This wine is a very dark ruby in color, with spicy oak and plummy fruit aromas and flavors in balance. Bright fruit flavors and tart acidity team up to make a full-bodied wine that's warm and fresh. (July 22, 2000)
FOOD MATCH: Excellent with a hickory-smoked pork loin served in corn tortillas with mild green chiles.
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Vol. 2, No. 27, July 24, 2000