How to Open a Wine Bottle with a Wax Seal
Anish Patel @ 2022-06-02 11:02:54 -0700
If you’ve come across a bottle of wine with a wax seal, you might notice that they have a very cool, unique look to them. The second thing you might notice? That you have no idea how to open it. As if opening a bottle of wine wasn’t intimidating enough, now you’ve got to worry about breaking through a wax seal?
But don't let a wax seal deter you from buying what is probably a great bottle of wine made by a thoughtful winemaker. The good news is that wax seals are actually very easy to open. They can even be easier than foil, which is notoriously stubborn.
All you have to know is how to do it. This guide is designed to tell you everything you need to know to start breaking through that wax seal like a pro.
Why the wax seal?
What is this new trend? As it turns out, the use of wax seals dates back to the Middle Ages, even before the cork. Monks in Europe were sealing their bottles with wax for two reasons. One, because wax seals are unmatched in their ability to keep out oxygen and pests, while corks were a little more hit or miss at the time. And two, because the wax seal offered a stamp of authenticity that, because of the mess that wax makes when you remove it, was nearly impossible to undermine.
Remember that this was before the time of wine labels, so the wax seal was really an important marker.
Today, corks are much more reliable, but they still need a covering to ensure that pests don’t get to them. Foil is often used but wax seals are making a comeback for a few reasons.
Why are wax seals used today?
Today, many winemakers argue that the wax seal is still more reliable than the foil when it comes to reinforcing the cork. Oxygen can’t get through the wax but it can get through the cork if it’s not closed properly. If this happens, the wine is ruined before it even hits the shelves.
Other winemakers do it for aesthetic reasons. Wax seals add a touch of drama and a pop of color that even the brightest foils don’t. And natural winemakers, known for wine labels that stand out on the shelf, might employ this technique as a way to signify that their wine is natural, organic, or even biodynamic.
Some winemakers use the wax seal because it’s slightly more environmentally friendly than foil. Foil is made from tin or aluminum and has to be completely removed before the bottle can be recycled. But wax naturally melts off during the recycling process and doesn’t require as much energy to produce.
So if you see a wax seal, it might be an indication that the bottle of wine is made by a sustainable winery. This is no guarantee, but it is a trend that many sustainable winemakers are embracing as a way to showcase their vision and mission.
Don’t cut the wax seal as you would foil.
The rookie mistake everyone makes is to treat the wax seal like they would the foil and cut around the rim of the bottle to remove it. If you do this, you’ll quickly learn that this isn’t the way. Cutting at the wax will result in a mess of waxy flakes all over everything: the table, your clothes, your corkscrew, and even in the wine itself. It’s not a good look and it’s totally unnecessary.
Some winemakers who use wax seals have mercy on their customers and install a tab that you can easily pull to remove the wax seal. But that’s not very common, so read on to find out how to easily remove the wax seal sans the tab.
Go in—with your corkscrew—directly through the wax.
Instead, just insert your corkscrew into the cork right through the top of the wax, as if it wasn’t even there. The corkscrew will easily drill through the wax, which is soft, and continue onto the cork itself.
When you’ve screwed the wine key all the way in, simply pull up. The cork, when pulled, will break right through the wax seal, likely in a perfect circle. The wax will pop off easily in a clean break, allowing you to pour the wine without any worry of wax in your wine glass.
It could get a little crumbly, though.
Sometimes, the break isn’t perfectly clean. No matter how you do it, wax seals can get a tad messy. Some wax seals have an invisible perforation built into them so that when you pull the cork, the wax breaks a perfect, cork-sized circle. But not all of them do. Depending on the wax and your ability to make a clean break, you could still end up with some crumbles around the mouth of the bottle.
Don’t panic, this is very easy to work around.
Just make sure you go slowly and peel away any stragglers left behind around the mouth of the bottle. Have a clean cloth ready to wipe away any flakes before you pour the wine.
Older bottles need to be approached differently.
Okay, there is an exception to this easy-going approach to wax seals: old bottles of wine. If the bottle you’re opening is a decade (or more) old, the cork has become fragile, and you need a different approach.
As a cork sits in the bottle, it crumbles, and a corkscrew only aids in tearing it apart rather than pulling it out. There are special wine keys that can grab the cork from the outside rather than the middle, allowing you to pull older corks out without tearing them to shreds and ending up with a bottle full of cork.
However, in order to carefully remove these corks, you need to get rid of that wax seal rather than drill right through it. There are two ways to do this, and they both require some caution.
The first approach is to carefully remove the wax by cutting around it with the knife on your wine key. Proceed with an extreme amount of caution, as wax can be difficult to cut through and your hand can easily slip. Keep in mind that this is going to get messy. But if you’re opening an old bottle of wine, the care and mess will be worth it.
The second option is to run the cap under very, very hot water. When heated, the wax will soften and melt so you can wipe it away with a paper towel. Be sure not to run the parts of the bottle that the wine is touching under the hot water. Older wine (and any wine) is sensitive to heat and you could spoil your wine if you change the temperature. Only run the water over the very top of the wax, where the cork is.
To melt the wax, the water is going to need to be smoking hot, so take care not to burn your hand with this approach.
If wax falls into the wine, here’s what you can do.
No matter how smooth your moves are, gravity sometimes wins and wax falls into the bottle. If a single piece of wax falls into your bottle, simply pour some wine out right away. You should see the piece of wax go right along with it.
If you’re not quick, or a lot of wax falls in, there’s still hope for you. Pour the wine through a cheesecloth into a decanter. The wine will run through but the wax will remain trapped in the cheesecloth. And the worst that happens is your wine gets to breathe a little bit while you’re doing damage control.
Let us wax poetic.
Some find wax seals beautiful, an element of the wine label, which is a piece of art itself. Others find them to be a pain and a mess. Whether you like them or not, wax seals are here to stay, and they’re even gaining momentum, especially in the natural wine movement. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Just make sure you’re in a space that is easy to clean—not on your couch or over a nice carpet. Open your bottle over the sink or a counter and let the pieces fall where they land and move on to enjoy that delicious glass of wine.
Want to try your hand at breaking the wax seal? Shop our natural wine selection with an array of wax-sealed bottles. Remember: practice makes perfect.