Unopened champagne bottle

Enjoying the dramatic flourish of a saber popping a bottle of Champagne won't happen if your bottle has a plastic “cork” in it. The reason is simple: If it’s capped in plastic, it’s actually not even Champagne. Champagne is only called “Champagne” when it comes from the Champagne region of France. Yes, Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne, and by law (since 1891), they cannot be termed Champagne. As with most laws, there’s a loophole that allows some California winemakers to still use the term “California Champagne,” but any other winemaker using the term faces the wrath of the Champagne “police.” And those police wouldn’t cork a bottle of authentic French Champagne with plastic. Horrors!

What’s Inside the Bottle

Now that’s covered, let’s get down to the cork vs. plastic debate and the science and economics of what’s inside your bottle of sparkling wine. Because the bubbly is twice fermented, the built-up gasses in the bottle are just lying there waiting to explode. Those gasses are what make a traditional cork turn into a mushroom and the reason several layers of protection are in between the bottle’s contents and its stopper, whether it's cork or plastic.

Since a plastic cork is made of, uh, plastic, it won’t expand inside the bottle, which is why it’s not entirely plastic. The bottom end, the part that’s inside the bottle, is coated with cork bits, so they’ll react to the gasses inside the bottle and expand to create a solid seal.

And consider the economics of real cork vs. plastic. Natural cork is harvested from trees grown primarily in Portugal and Spain. Cork is a sustainable crop since the bark from the trees regrows every nine years, and stripping the outer bark does not harm the trees. In fact, some cork trees are hundreds of years old. However, a bad growing season and import costs can push up the price of cork, and growers are at the mercy of these price fluctuations.

On the other hand, plastic corks (purists prefer the term synthetic corks) are generally consistent in price. Producers of the stoppers responded to the need for a stopper to expand inside the bottle by coupling the synthetic materials with cork. However, synthetic corks, for the most part, are not biodegradable.

Getting to the Goods

Now that you understand the science and economics of corks, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. When you’re trying to make a toast, it may seem as if it takes a long time to actually get to the contents of a bottle of sparkling wine. That's because you have several layers to remove from the top, including:

  • The outer foil
  • Cage with crown
  • Key

Have a tea towel handy, and be sure your sparkling wine is chilled to at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Chilling decreases the pressure inside the bottle. Whether you’re uncorking a bottle of Champagne, prosecco, cava, Buck’s Fizz or any other sparkling beverage, the opening process is the same.

Doing the Twist

With the bottle standing upright on a table, remove the foil. For safety, place one hand over the crown of the cage in case the gasses are too excited to be released.

  1. Give the key six small twists, releasing the cage. Remove the cage and cover the cork with the towel. Tell your guests to stand back in case of an explosion.
  2. Cradle the bottle in one arm at a 45-degree angle. 
  3. Twist the BOTTLE, not the cork, slowly, until the gasses start to gently release. 
  4. Listen for a slight fizz, not a pop. The cork should release into the towel.

Uncorking a bottle of sparkling wine covered in a synthetic cork isn’t dramatic, elegant or even as noisy, but the joy of drinking the nectar inside is what you and your guests have been waiting for. So get your flutes ready for the bubbles and enjoy!