Saturday, March 29, 2008

Corks & Corkscrews

We were never particularly concerned with the type of cork or closure used for wine, and besides, consumers don’t have a choice – we’ve stuck with whatever cork a winemaker puts into a bottle. Until last night.

Like everyone in the wine world, we’d heard of “corked” bottles – wines tainted by TCA, a chemical found in (among other places) cork, which makes a wine smell like wet dogs or dirty socks. Last night, we opened one of our regular House wines, and the wine was unmistakably corked. We’ve had “bad” wines – vinegary, past their prime, or with other flaws – but never one we could point to and say, “That wine is corked.”

It really wouldn’t be fair to point out the wine and winery (unless subsequent bottles show the same flaw, at which point we’d want to alert the winery and consumers), but suffice it to say the wine was from a large producer that we’ve found consistently reliable. (Two good articles about cork taint can be found at The Wine Academy and BlogCritics.)

So, our little meditations on corks and corkscrews.

After opening wine bottles for many years, we’ve gravitated toward some preferences in corkscrews. Our three favorite types are:

Waiter’s Corkscrew – The old standby classic. It has to have an “open” worm, not one with a central shaft. Unless the cork is old or damaged, or we insert the corkscrew incorrectly, this opens everything every time.

Ah-So – This is the two-prong “rock-and-twist” corkscrew, which is absolutely essential for getting broken corks out of bottles. It’s also a good everyday corkscrew, but doesn’t have the traditional appeal of a worm-type screw.

The Lever Types – These come by a lot of names: Screwpull, Rabbit, etc. They generally have open worm screws, and have a three-step lever action which inserts the worm, removes the cork, and then removes the cork from the worm. We love these, but find that the worms need frequent replacement as they loose their coatings or break.

(To us, the absolute worst are the wing-type corkscrews. They almost always have a central shaft, and chew up corks like a dog with a bone. For some reason the new-to-wine set in the 1970s just seemed to love these. We don’t know why.)

Corks & Closures
Even before we had our corked wine experience, if we had a choice, we’d prefer a screw top (despite its lack of traditional charm). Yet despite that bottle, our second choice would be a good old real Portuguese cork from a tree. To us, the other big problem with real cork is that it deteriorates with age – even some five-year-old corks have crumbled on us. (Guess we’ll just have to start drinking our wines younger.)

We detest composite corks (we know they aren’t, yet we think of them as full of wood glue, sort of like plywood), as they seem cheaply made and prone to crumbling and breakage. (The corked wine we had was closed with a composite cork.) We also dislike synthetic (plastic) corks, as they are next to impossible for screwpull openers; an Ah-So often slips on them; and they’re even a lot of work for a waiter’s corkscrew. Conversely, they’re as TCA-proof as are screw tops. (I say “we,” but this is mostly Ken’s writing. Weirdly, Francesca, who is tiny and struggles with most corks, actually prefers synthetic corks.)

And as opinionated as we are, we really don’t spend a lot of time worrying about foils, plastic foils, or wax on a cork. We’d prefer anything but wax, but for us it’s a non-issue.

Left to right: Real cork; 2 synthetic corks; 2 “one-plus-one” composite corks (real cork on ends and composite middle); screw cap.