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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I've recently encountered several wines with crumbling corks. What causes the corks to crumble apart?
—Anthony, Indian Head Park, Ill.
Let me start by saying that a crumbly cork or a cork that is easily pushed into the bottle doesn’t mean that the wine is compromised, but sometimes it can be a bad omen. There is no such thing as cork forensics out there (yet)—you just have to taste the wine and find out, as speculating doesn’t do much good.
It could be that the cork was faulty to begin with—punched out in the wrong shape, for example, or something went wrong when it was inserted into the bottle. It could have been exposed to dry conditions or heat, or there wasn’t enough humidity where the bottle was stored, or the bottle wasn’t stored on its side … any of these things can cause the cork to dry out. I’ve had more problems with older corks in older wines, but overall it’s not unusual to have cork variability—after all, a cork is just a piece of tree bark. Corks are elastic, strong and usually have just the right amount of permeability, but still, they're just tree bark.
But let me ask you to take inventory of what kind of corkscrew you’re using, too. I’ve found that some corkscrews—like those cheap, winged corkscrews—can shred corks or force them into a bottle. I’m a fan of a waiter’s key, one with a thin corkscrew “worm,” because the thicker, duller ones can put too much downward force on the cork, breaking it apart or pushing it in. An ah-so is another great way to open a bottle of wine with a delicate cork, but it does take some practice. I’ve been able to use a Durand corkscrew a few times and it's a game-changer. It combines an ah-so with a thin worm, but it’s a pricey tool and not for everyone.
If you are using a waiter’s key, make sure your technique is correct: Insert the worm as close to center as possible, and pull very slowly. If you notice upon pulling that the cork is starting to fall apart, stop. Maybe you have the worm twisted in too far (or not far enough if the cork is starting to crack in half).
Besides making sure you have the right tool and technique for the job, make sure you’re storing your wine with enough humidity, and store the bottles on their side to give them the best shot for aging well.
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