We’ve all been there. Excitedly opening a special bottle of wine, often while trying to impress an audience of illustrious guests, only to see the corkscrew unwind with but a bit of the cork.
The worries are twofold: saving face as one battles with the obvious lack of expertise and, most importantly, preserving the precious wine. Can it actually be drunk after a cork disaster?
We’ve asked an expert for techniques and coping strategies. Alexandre Freguin’s first piece of advice is clear: ‘Do not stress! You will only make it worse…’ Freguin, UK Best Sommelier 2018 and head sommelier at the Michelin-starred L’Oustalet in Gigondas, has had to deal with his share of tricky corks. The primary strategy is, as in the setting of a top restaurant, keeping one’s cool.
The cork has crumbled. What to do?
The simplest, and most obvious solution, is to filter the wine through a mesh strainer.
‘Clearing the wine from the floating bits of cork is the main target.’ says Freguin. ‘I find a very thin cloth is particularly useful and efficient. Use a funnel covered with the cloth and pour the wine into another container.’
But it’s important to be aware of the nature of the wine. ‘Be careful. If we are talking about an old or very fragile wine I wouldn’t pour the entire bottle out – only until the pieces of cork have fallen on the cloth. Then pour the wine back into the bottle.’ The filtration and aeration will speed up the process of oxidation and the loss of the more volatile aromas, therefore having a negative impact on a particularly delicate wine. You might even want to consider, in such cases, filtering directly into the glass.
If the cork has crumbled does it mean the wine is faulty?
If a wine has been properly stored, horizontally, with liquid in contact with the cork’s inner surface, and in a space with enough humidity, the cork should remain hydrated and in good condition. A hydrated cork will keep its flexibility and structure. If the bottles are stored vertically for too long in a dry atmosphere, the cork will dry out, become brittle and lose its cohesion.
‘Corks can be tricky, especially on older bottles, but they are also a great source of information about the state of conservation and storage of the wine. I get suspicious if the cork just falls apart.’ says Freguin.
It might mean that the wine has had unwanted contact with oxygen, possibly for a long time, and is therefore not in best condition. So taste carefully before serving the wine to guests. But a crumbling cork does not necessarily mean that the wine’s quality has been compromised.
‘Some of the best bottles of wine I have tasted have had the worst cork condition,’ says Clement Robert MS, head sommelier and wine buyer at 28-50 wine bars. In most cases the wine will still be fine to drink, as it should still have been kept with a protective seal.
On the other hand, the cork pieces will not make the wine corked. ‘One of the most common misconceptions is that [if a cork crumbles] the residue in contact with the wine will make it corked. But you can be sure that this has nothing to do with it. ‘Cork taint is not a product of cork itself; it happens due to the presence of a chemical compound (TCA), which can occur in any cork, old or new, dry or moist. If it isn’t there to begin with, then it won’t be there when the cork breaks.
Is there a bulletproof technique?
The quick answer is no. You might have the best corkscrew on the market and you might have done it a million times before. Corks crumble and break even at the hands of the most experienced sommeliers. This is especially true for old bottles which have not been stored correctly, as mentioned above, leaving the cork dry and crumbly.
Sommeliers recommend having a two-prong opener, also known as butler’s thief, at hand, and use it if the cork looks prone to break or crumble.
The butler’s thief is essentially a handle with two flat metal prongs attached, sprung so that when you work them (cautiously) down the sides of a cork that looks/feels like it may crumble, they apply some inward pressure to the potentially dodgy cork.
Once you’ve persuaded the prongs far enough down between the cork and the inner side of the bottleneck – start with the longer of the two, and use a slight lateral motion as you progress, rather than pressing directly down – that pressure enables you then to begin pulling up while rotating the cork out of the bottle neck.
You might even want to consider using the two prong opener and a corkscrew simultaneously, with the latter’s spiral creating more inner pressure against the prongs, allowing the cork to remain more compact while pulled by the prongs.
I only have a regular corkscrew and the cork has broken… Now what?
If you don’t have an alternative tool and you’re stuck with a broken cork, half of it still blocking the bottle neck (i.e. you can’t even filter the wine) you have two options: either you try again with your corkscrew, inserting it carefully then pulling the cork in one go instead of twisting; you simply concede and push the cork down into the bottle.
If this happens remember to use the handle of a teaspoon to keep the cork down while pouring and prevent wine spurting. Not the most elegant solution but serves the ultimate purpose: drinking the wine!