Why Corks Break
Before I opened that ill-fated bottle of Tuscan Antinori, I’d never broken a cork while opening a bottle of wine. However, as I started opening more ancient vintages, I discovered that cork breakage actually becomes more common as your wine collection expands and you add older wines to your cellar. Older wine corks break either because the cork is inherently flawed or because storage conditions haven’t been ideal throughout the wine’s lifetime.
If a cork was especially dry, or wasn’t formed properly, then it will be difficult to remove from the bottle, and could have exposed the liquid inside to oxidation. You’ll know that this was the problem if you smell moldy newspaper after you open it. However, if the wine smells normal, it’s possible that the cork simply dried out or began to absorb too much wine as it aged over the decades. Additionally, if you use a dull corkscrew or the wrong opening technique, you could break a perfectly healthy cork. The good news is that a broken cork won’t ruin your bottle, as long as you understand how to filter it out properly.
Buy the Right Corkscrew
Wine Spectator’s Dr. Vinifera says that cork breakage happens to the best collectors and sommeliers in the world, and the culprit is often the corkscrew. He says, “I notice that thick, dull corkscrews break corks more than thin, pointy ones.” That’s why, generally, I recommend using a standard waiter’s friend corkscrew with an extra sharp edge and a thin profile. However, to open an older vintage, you should avoid waiter’s friends and even electric corkscrews. The only foolproof wine opener for an old wine is a two-pronged tool. This type of opener fits around the cork to pry it out in one piece. There’s no piercing required, which means that older, brittle corks won’t have as much risk of breakage.
How to Open a Wine Bottle Without Breaking the Cork
To open a wine bottle without breaking the cork, start with preventative storage, then use the perfect wine opener coupled with the right technique. The method you use will depend on the wine bottle you have.
Prevent Cork Breakage via Storage
You can stop cork breakage from happening in the first place by storing your wine properly. Always keep bottles on their sides so that the cork doesn’t dry out and become brittle. Some corks will be naturally more porous than others, and might absorb liquid, which could lead to breakage as well. You can’t always prevent this problem, but dry corks are always preventable.
Use a Waiter’s Friend Properly
If you have a bottle that’s less than 10 years old and that you believe was stored under excellent conditions, use a sharp waiter’s friend to open it. Start by piercing the end of the corkscrew directly into the center of the cork; if you are off by even a half a centimeter, the cork might break. Twist the corkscrew so that it worms its way directly through the center. Continue twisting until there’s about one twist left, then stop. This prevents the screw from going all the way through the cork. Place the arm of the corkscrew against the lip of the bottle, then press firmly against the bottle to pry the cork out. As long as you centered the screw properly, the cork should come out clean.
Use a Two-Pronged Opener Properly
For any bottles that are more than 10 years old, or for rare bottles like Sine Qua Non or hard-to-find vintages of DRC that you really don’t want to break, use a two-pronged opener instead. This technique requires more skill than a waiter’s friend, but once you master this method, you can and should use it for any treasured bottle you own. First, carefully insert the longer prong between the edge of the cork and the side of the bottle. Press it down just one centimeter at first, until it’s firmly in place. Next, insert the shorter prong in the same manner, across from the first prong. Gently rock the opener against the cork and press down until the base of the handle is touching the lip of the bottle. Hold the bottle’s shoulder as you twist the handle and pull the cork out.
What to Do If You Break the Cork
Even with the best technique, tools, and prevention, accidents still happen. If you break the cork, you can salvage the wine inside by pouring it through a cheesecloth or fine colander into a decanter. This also helps aerate your wine before serving. Take more care with an older wine or a delicate white wine that can’t handle too much time in a decanter; you might have to strain the wine, then place it inside of a narrow container to prevent too much oxidation from taking place. Thankfully, a broken cork will never ruin your wine drinking experience, as long as you understand how to filter the pieces out with care.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.