By Wine Spectator staff
Seems like serving a wine should be easy enough: Just open and pour. But anyone who has ever struggled with a crumbling cork, or listened to a debate over whether the Cabernet they’re drinking needs to “breathe” more, knows that sometimes it’s not quite so simple.
Ever been stymied by an unfamiliar wine closure or unusual bottle, puzzled over serving etiquette or wondered why there are so many different types of corkscrews? Here are some tips for opening any bottle with ease and grace, or dealing with a cork that’s gone awry.
Most wines are finished with a cork of some type—all-natural cork, composite cork or a synthetic—covered by a capsule of either metal or plastic. To open:
Removing the top of the capsule makes it easier to remove the cork, reduces the chances of a weak cork breaking in the bottle and keeps sharp edges away from the bottle opening. It also gives you a clue if any liquid has seeped past the cork, from the wine having been exposed to high temperatures. Formal wine service calls for the server to just cut below the lip to preserve the packaging for presentation, but in the privacy of your own home, you can feel free to remove the whole capsule if you prefer. Some wineries have replaced capsule with thin, transparent cellophane intended to be removed or dispensed with the capsule altogether in an effort to reduce packaging; the cork may be topped with a bit of wax that can be flicked off by slipping a blade under it.
You don’t have to smell the cork once it’s removed. Some believe it provides information about whether a wine is off; if a natural or composite cork smells bad, that may indicate the wine is flawed, but we’ve had corks that smelled fine even though the wine wasn’t showing well, and vice versa. You can visually inspect the cork to see if it’s dry or damaged, or if wine has leaked to the top—warning signs that the wine is oxidized or cooked—but tasting the wine will verify that. If you purchased a rare collectible wine, inspecting the cork for the stamp of the winery can help verify authenticity.
Screw cap closures have become popular as a way to eliminate the problem of TCA taint (remember those musty aromas we mentioned above?) that is sometimes caused by corks; you’ll find twist-offs most commonly on white wines where preserving the freshness is a key consideration, but even on high-end reds worth aging. An enthusiastic twist and a “Boy, that was easy!” will probably do. Grab the cap firmly with one hand, twist the bottle with the other, and make a “crack” noise (the closest you can get to a cork’s pop) to loosen the seal. (To add flair, some servers twist off the cap by rolling it down their forearm—mighty impressive.)
Glass toppers—an elegant stopper that resembles a simple T-shaped decanter top—are another alternative to corks and can be found on wines from all over. If you come across a glass topper, you might not know it at first, as they lie underneath the bottle’s foil capsule. No special opener is needed, just flick it off.
You can also find good-quality wines these days in the bag-in-a-box (or cylinder) format, lightweight Tetra Pak cartons and other types of containers. Their closures or dispensers may vary and should be fairly self-explanatory.
Champagne and sparkling wines have a different type of cork closure—no corkscrew needed here—and must be handled carefully since the contents are under pressure and a flying cork could cause injury. Don’t open a bottle right after transporting it home, and make sure the wine is well-chilled before opening, so the bubbles don’t froth out the top.
Assuming that not every wine you buy comes topped with a twist-off or packaged in a carton, you’re going to need a corkscrew at some point. (Yes, you can find videos online about how to open a wine bottle with your shoe, but that’s an act of desperation.)
One of the most versatile and portable is the waiter’s corkscrew, a compact hinged opener with a spiral corkscrew “worm” on one end and a lever on the other; these range from basic models under $15 to luxury-brand versions with ivory handles and forged blades. Models with hinged levers come in handy for extracting extra-long corks. Also popular are the powerful lever models that reduce the effort of pulling and make it easier to open a lot of bottles in one night. There are even electric wine openers to do the same.
Look for an opener with a thin screw, or “worm,” which will be gentler on potentially crumbly corks than a thick one. And get one with a foil cutter—whether it’s a blade attached to the corkscrew or an accompanying easy grip-and-squeeze accessory you place over the top of the bottle. If you’re choosing a blade, a serrated one tends to be less likely to slip than a non-serrated one and should also minimize any tearing of the foil.
Whatever your preference, it’s always good to have one or two backup openers on hand to deal with the problem cases.
Crumbling or fragile cork: Rather than forcibly drive a corkscrew into its center, you can use a two-pronged wine opener, known as an Ah-So. Start with the longer prong and slowly slide the prongs into the tight space between the cork and the bottle. Rock it back and forth until the top of the Ah-So is resting on the top of the cork. Then twist the cork while gently pulling it up. It might feel a bit awkward, and it takes a couple of minutes, but it keeps the cork in one piece.
Large-format bottles: Larger-than-standard bottle sizes, which tend to have corks that are bigger in diameter, can be more difficult to handle and, as these bottles are less likely to be stored on their sides, the corks may be prone to drying out—and breaking. Use as long a corkscrew as is available, preferably one with five "twists," and insert as you would a normal bottle. Once the cork is about half-way extracted, twist the corkscrew further in as far as possible, to the "hilt," and pull it the rest of the way out. If it breaks, re-insert it at a 45-degree angle and continue to pull it out.
Broken cork: If a cork breaks apart as you’re pulling it, you might want to reach for a waiter’s corkscrew, as you can reinsert the worm at a 45-degree angle into the remaining cork piece and then slowly work it out.
Loose cork: If the cork is moving around the neck of the bottle, other types of openers may push it down into the wine. A waiter’s corkscrew inserted at an angle can give you more control over it.
Wax seal over cork: Some wine-opener kits come with special stainless-steel wax removers. But if you’re struggling to cut or chip away at the wax, you can always just stick your corkscrew through the wax and pretend it’s not there. First, use a waiter’s corkscrew (not an Ah-So or lever-pull style), preferably one that isn’t coated with Teflon, which the wax will do a real number on. Estimate where the center of the cork is, put in your corkscrew, and before you make the final tug to get the cork out, brush off any stray bits of wax so they don’t fall into the bottle.