Confessions of an English Placomusophile
Like Charlie Bucket unwrapping a bar of Wonka chocolate, when I open a bottle of sparkling wine I’m always looking out for something extra. But unlike the hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s not a glimpse of golden ticket I’m after but a decorated cap beneath the gold foil.
The caps are an integral element of the cage which secures the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine. The wire cage, or musulet (from the French word for muzzle) was invented in 1844 by Adolphe Jacquesson, son of the founders of a champagne business which is still going strong in the village of Dizy. The cage fits around the cork and 6 twists of the wire at its base tighten around the neck of the bottle and hold the cork securely in place. A recent innovation by Champagne René Jolly has seen the traditional 4-legged musulet replaced by a 3-legged version with a Y-shaped arrangement of wires over the cap.
In France, where the caps are called plaques des muselet, collecting them is a well-established hobby. In Reims, the capital of Champagne, there is a market stall selling a huge range of collectable caps. Starting at €10 for a pack of four, prices rise as rarity increases. Many of them feature just the name of the producer but the more interesting ones have local scenes, show the vineyard through the seasons or feature old family portraits. Many champagne producers even have different plaques for each of their cuvées or change them for each vintage. Local tourist offices sell shaped and polished wooden boards with holes drilled in for prized caps to be displayed in.
In the UK I’ve seen a few, but you’re certainly not guaranteed a decorated cap with your fizz here. The ones I’ve spotted so far are from Nyetimber (powder blue with their name and ‘Product of England’), Camel Valley (a golden triangle of stylised grapes on a black background) and Ridgeview (gold with a black R and the word Merret around the edge). Then there’s the goose from Gusbourne and an angel from Ambriel, a white signature on matt black from Waitrose’s Leckford Estate and a knightly shield from Davenport Vineyards. On the caps of their bottles of Balfour Brut Rosé, the H and E from Hush Heath Estate are entwined in a Tudor-style heraldic device.
Chapel Down do a very good job with theirs. It’s bright red and has the Chapel Down name and their window tracery/glass logo in the centre. Beneath this are the coats of arms of Kent, Sussex and Essex, the sources of the grapes that go into their wines. I like the fact that this is an understated (and I expect in most cases entirely unnoticed) acknowledgement of the geography behind the brand.
The only producer I’ve found so far with more than one cap is Furleigh Estate in Dorset. Perhaps it’s the consequence of a design change rather than an intentional decision to have different caps for different wines? I’ll have to open a few more bottles before I’m sure.
I’m hoping I’ve got a few caps lying undiscovered and under foil in the cellar. If you come across any when opening your sparkling, do please let us know.
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