Uncorking a bottle of wine. In theory, it should be a simple task, but in reality it can be one of a wine lover’s biggest headaches. If you consider yourself a world-class cork breaker, help is within reach. With a few simple tools and tricks, broken corks will soon be a thing of the past.
First things first: use the right equipment. The essential tool in this case is the wine key, and while there seems to be a new gadget invented daily to make opening wine easier, in this case simpler is actually better. Stick with a basic, no-frills waiter’s corkscrew, ideally with a two-hinged leverage system (which is a fancy way of saying that there are two ledges to rest on the bottle lip to provide leverage when pulling the cork out). Pulltap is always a safe bet and typically only costs about $10. And for those who remain convinced that the “winged” corkscrew is easier to use than a wine key, think about the struggle faced when the winged corkscrew’s worm just isn’t long enough and there isn’t enough leverage to remove the cork. Trust us: once you get the wine key technique down, you’ll wish you’d thrown out that winged corkscrew sooner!
Now, it’s time to master the technique, step by step. The key (no pun intended) is to make sure the worm is both centered and deep enough into the cork. After removing the bottle’s foil, open the wine key so that the worm is perpendicular to the body of the key. Hold the body of the wine key in your hand so that the worm is between your pointer and middle fingers and the hinged part is in between your thumb and pointer finger. To center the worm, hold the key so that the worm is perpendicular to the bottle, and place the first rung just over the lip of the bottle so that it is resting on the cork. Then, lift the corkscrew straight up, ready to screw into the cork – this trick will ensure that the worm is centered each time. Screw the corkscrew into the cork far enough that the entire helix-shaped part of the worm is buried in the cork. Then, rest the first ledge on the lip of the bottle and, while holding this ledge securely on the lip, pull the body of the wine key straight up. When the cork gets about halfway out, rest the second ledge on the lip of the bottle and pull the body of the wine key upward again. This should remove the cork seamlessly.
In order to make sure that the wine key is screwed deeply enough into the cork, be sure to keep turning until the entire helix-shaped part of the worm is buried. If the last rung is still visible, give the key an extra turn.
If you’re using the right tools in the correct method and corks are still breaking left and right, then it’s time for a little troubleshooting. First, check the wine key. Over time, wine keys wear out, so if the worm has started to bend it’s time for a replacement – bent wine keys will pull the cork to one side and break it in half. Second, check the cork. Some corks – particularly those in Barolo and Barbaresco – are longer than a standard cork, so the wine key may not be able to pull the cork out fully. Rather than using brute force, which may rip the cork in two, give the wine key another turn; it may be enough to get that last bit of leverage needed to remove the cork.
And finally, check the age of the bottle. Unless they have been re-corked, older bottles have older corks, which can be delicate and crumbly and will often fall apart under the pressure of a standard corkscrew. Special bottles like this require a special tool, and while the pronged “Ah-so” opener is the standard for this purpose, a new and wonderful tool called the Durand goes one step further. A combo tool with prongs to fit around the cork and a worm to stabilize it, the Durand is your new best friend for opening older wines.
Speaking as someone who might open upwards of 200 bottles each week, it’s inevitable that a cork or two is going to break. Not to worry; there’s a solution for that as well. If the remainder of the broken cork is still in the neck, it’s often possible to remove this piece the same way you would generally uncork a bottle. Just gently try to screw the wine key into what’s left of the cork, being careful not push the cork into the bottle with too much pressure. If you get a turn or two into the cork, you’re in business – just lever the broken cork out of the bottle and wipe the neck off.
Now, say that the broken cork has indeed fallen into the wine itself. That’s okay, too. It’s time for some patience and another handy tool: a wine cork retriever, which basically looks like one of those claw games with stuffed animals at the arcade. Wine Enthusiast makes a good, inexpensive one. Insert the long prongs into the bottle and wait for the cork to float into the center of the prongs. Carefully pull the tool out of the bottle, holding the prongs as tightly together as possible with your other hand. This should remove the cork, though it might take a few tries.
Worst case scenario (or if you’re just drinking the bottle yourself and don’t care about presentation), just pour the bottle through a sieve or cheesecloth into a decanter to catch any cork bits. It’ll taste the same, though you’ll want to be sure to finish the wine that day, since it’s already out of the bottle. Another tip if you’re trying to keep things nice and present the cork with the bottle: if you have both halves of the broken cork, stick a halved toothpick in one half of the cork to connect it to the other half. Good as new.
It’s official: you are no longer a world-class cork breaker, and you’re ready to problem-solve when the occasional cork does break. Let nothing stand between you and your bottle!