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Corks and Corkscrews

In this enlightened age, few people think twice about opening a bottle of wine. This magic liquid has become so ubiquitous that it seems hardly necessary to discuss the methods of opening a bottle. The methods are in fact many and varied, however, and whilst some are quite simple and straightforward, others are more showmanlike and some I simply wouldnít recommend.

Corks and Cork Alternatives

The vast majority of corks are made from the bark of the oak tree Quercus suber, and come from the oak forests of Portugal. There are alternatives to the standard cork, however, the motives behind these alternatives being in some cases financial, and in some cases a quest for quality and consistency.

Natural corkThis is a fairly standard cork comprising a single piece of bark of about 24mm diameter. This is about 6mm wider than the internal diameter of the neck of the average wine bottle, which ensures a tight fit, provided the cork doesnít dry out and contract.

Agglomerate corkThis is an agglomerate cork, manufactured from tiny pieces of chopped cork, bound together by glue. The motive behind this closure is financial Ė the process allows for otherwise wasted pieces of oak bark to be made into something saleable. They are short, so more can be produced.

Champagne corkThe Champagne cork is a little different. Slightly larger (31mm across, it is made from three pieces of cork sandwiched together. The mushroom shaped head protrudes from the top of the bottle, allowing the wine drinker to get a good grip on it when easing it out.

There are two main concerns about using natural cork to seal wine bottles. Firstly, fungal contamination of the cork results in 'corked' flavours, tainting of the wine producing a musty, cardboardy aroma and taste. With particular reference to agglomerate closures, many tasters detect a glue-like aroma or taste tainting the wine, a fault derived from the glue used to bond the tiny pieces of cork together. Also, the manufacturing process and use of many different pieces of bark in a single cork theoretically increases the risk of fungal contamination and the wine being corked. Because of the significant number of natural corks that are contaminated, resulting in corked wine (a generally accepted figure is about 5% of all bottles), many winemakers are opting for alternative methods of closure. There are two main methods, synthetic closures and screw caps.

Synthetic corkThis is a synthetic closure, of which there are quite a number of different brands on the market. Many go some way to imitating natural cork, in terms of colour at least, whereas some proudly display their synthetic nature by means of bold, impressive colours.

The debate about the efficacy of these methods of closure rages on, but my main concern is that there is not definitive proof as yet that wines bottled using synthetic closures age in the same way as those bottled using natural cork, a proven although admittedly flawed material. Hopefully research currently underway, performed by the Australian Wine Research Institute, will go some way towards demonstrating the effect of synthetic closures on the ageing of wine. One other concern about synthetic closures is the ruthless efficiency with which they strip the Teflon coating from more expensive models of corkscrew. I always recommend removing these corks using a simple butterfly model.

Stelvin closureFinally, thescrewcap. This is an extremely efficient method of sealing a bottle of any consumable liquid, be it a carbonated drink, beer, salad dressing, orange juice, tomato sauce, mineral water or, frankly, wine. As with synthetic closures, however, there isnít yet the necessary weight of evidence concerning long-term ageing necessary for important producers to switch from cork to Stelvin (one brand of screwcap). Stelvins are, however, currently used by some producers of quite fine wines intended for drinking in their youth, particularly New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Riesling.

Corkscrews

CorkscrewThe most important aspect of corkscrew design is the screw itself. Corkscrews with an actual screw design, with a hollow centre, like the one on the left, are best. These will screw into cork and grip it well, thus making extraction easy. All worthy models of corkscrew have this design. At the very cheap end of the market, however, the screw is made from a central rod with a blade running around the margin. These donít grip the cork so well, and whereas they may suffice for synthetic corks, they certainly donít work well on natural corks which are prone to splitting or crumbling in response to such an attack. These corkscrews often seem a bargain (they are frequently found in 'bargain basement' shops), but they are close to useless. Avoid at all costs.

Screwpull corkscrewThe Screwpull
This is a popular design, as it reduces the process of removing the cork into one almost effortless screw action.  The Teflon-coated screw thread is easily introduced into the cork through the guide. By continuing to twist as the head hits the guide, the cork is gently coaxed from the bottle. These are somewhat more expensive than the other corkscrews shown here, but are worth the expenditure. Used correctly, they last well.

Waiter's FriendThe Waiterís Friend
This popular model is a favourite with waiters, as it is compact and efficient. After introducing the screw into the cork, the lever is positioned against the rim of the neck of the bottle and a firm action results in the cork being pulled. One problem is that occasionally it results in chipping of the glass around the rim Ė quite undesirable. These corkscrews are inexpensive and easily carried about in the pocket or tucked away in a bag. Handy for emergencies!

ButterflyThe Butterfly
This is an efficient, popular if somewhat cumbersome design. As the screw enters the cork the lever arms are forced upwards. Once in to the hilt forcing the arms down results in extraction of the cork. Handy to have around to save ruining your Screwpull on synthetic corks, which with time will strip the Teflon coating from the screw. Watch out for the cork-mangling central rod with blade design - it frequently appears on this type of corkscrew.

Who Needs a Corkscrew Anyway?

There are methods of removing the cork other than by using a corkscrew. One much lauded method employed by bored cavalryman is to swipe the top off their bottle of Champagne using a sabre. Although it sounds ridiculous, this technique actually works, and can be performed by anyone with a large kitchen knife. Note, however, that I accept no responsibility for any injury you may cause yourself whilst trying to emulate this technique!

Butler's FriendThe Butlerís Friend
So called because it allows downstairs staff to remove corks, sup away and then replace the cork without a trace (although I have often wondered, but never dared ask, what they topped up with). The two prongs are inserted either side of the cork, which may then be removed by a combined twisting and pulling action. This is a really neat way of removing a cork.

Compressed air
These contraptions were popular during the 1970s and early 1980s, although are seldom seen today. This may be related to numerous stories of exploding bottles and injuries resulting from flying glass. The needle is inserted through the cork, and then air is hand pumped into the bottle, rather like pumping up a bicycle tyre. The cork is forced out by the increased pressure within the bottle. I donít recommend using one.

A Special Case: Champagne

Champagne, of course, doesnít require a corkscrew. But there is still a technique to opening it, which doesnít involve emulating the antics of Formula One race winners. Start with the bottle standing upright.

Opening ChampagneOpening ChampagneLocate the wire loop beneath the foil capsule, by feeling around the neck of the bottle. Getting your thumbnail behind it, pull it out and downwards, tearing the capsule as you do so. Proceed to remove the rest of the capsule. Grasp the neck of the bottle, keeping the thumb firmly over the cork. This prevents it flying out with the potential to cause damage or even injury. Then untwist the wire loop, and loosen the cage. Don't loosen your grip though!

Opening ChampagneOpening ChampagneNow, never taking the thumb from its secure position over the cork, pick up the bottle. Firmly grasp the cork between thumb and forefinger, and begin, with the other hand, to twist the bottle away from it. As the cork moves, control its release the thumb.

Continue twisting the bottle away from the cork. It's eventual release should be accompanied by a gentle sigh of escaping carbon dioxide gas. A louder pop suggests that you haven't controlled the extraction of the cork adequately, but as long as there is no loss of wine then this doesn't really matter. Failure to control the cork at all, resulting in a fountain of Champagne, may produce a laugh and cheer, but ultimately this is just an expensive mistake.

Another Special Case: Port

When it comes to Port, only a few bottles cause problems. Many cheaper Ruby or LBV Ports are bottled with a short cork stopper, which is easily twisted out by hand. Better LBV and Vintage Ports, however, come with a full length cork, but again this is easily removed using a corkscrew. Well, it is in most cases.

The problems begin with more ancient bottles. Even if correctly stored, the corks in bottles cellared for about 25 years or more tend to weaken and crumble, particularly when it comes to removing them. With such time and money invested in your precious bottle, it makes sense to get to the wine without filling it with pieces of troublesome cork. Hereís where port tongs come in handy. In all honesty this tool must be little used in these days of central heating, as for a start you need some method of heating up the tongs, such as an open fire.  The hot tongs are placed around the neck of the bottle, just at the bottom of the cork. Once heated, the neck is quickly cooled by holding a damp cloth around it. The sudden change in temperature will cause the glass to fracture, and the top of the bottle, complete with cork, may be lifted away as if it were a stopper. An impressive way to get access to some venerable wine.