Some of the wine corks from the bottles our wine critic has consumed. Picture: The Washington Post
Some of the wine corks from the bottles our wine critic has consumed. Picture: The Washington Post

What corks can reveal about the wine in your bottle

By Dave McIntyre Time of article published Jun 9, 2020

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Good wines really do have stories to tell. It may be simple, pleasant conversation, and that's fine most of the time. It may be the polemic of an argumentative teenager, challenging our worldview. 

Or a friend offering comfort and solace in turbulent times. All can be delicious, and all are valid. We just need to listen and pay attention. Those who say, "Who cares? Open the bottle, down the hatch, the cheaper the better," aren't listening. They insist on doing all the talking, because they may not realise they have something to learn.

You may have guessed by now that I've been reading the comments on my columns and defending my worldview over dinner. Both could make the wine taste more bitter, but they've actually been positive experiences, seasoned with some head shaking. And there has been good conversation, which can be like a fine wine.

When I wrote about wine's appearance, a reader with the handle "Mrs Bates" noted that I neglected to discuss the cork. "The cork tells some important details about the wine," Mrs Bates wrote. "It tells if the bottle was sealed and stored properly."

She has a point. We can get very nerdy about the different types of cork and synthetic closures, their environmental virtues and how they protect against cork taint or allow precisely the right amount of oxygen into the wine to allow it to age properly. Mrs Bates likes her corks spongy, with a bit of a spring when you squeeze on either end, and a ring of color around the base. 

That ring, either red or a wet stain from a white wine, indicates the bottle was stored on its side or upside down, the wine in contact with the cork. That's conventional wisdom for proper storage, and explains why wine racks hold bottles horizontally.

"Don't forget to sniff the wine-end of the cork," advised another reader, DaveInNY. If the wine is contaminated with cork taint, a chemical called TCA, "the cork will smell like wet dog. Yuck." Well, maybe. Sniffing the cork is suggestive, but not conclusive, about the quality of the wine. A cork may smell fine even after it has tainted the wine, and a wine may be fine even if the cork smells moldy.

However, DaveInNY makes a good point in urging us to inspect a wine's ullage - the gap between the cork and the wine in an unopened bottle, which should be about a quarter to half an inch. A greater gap suggests wine has evaporated or seeped through a faulty cork. This is usually a problem for older wines. The wine may have been stored upright and the cork may have deteriorated over time. If you see excessive ullage in a younger wine (10 years or less) in a store, don't buy it. If you already have the wine in your cellar, open it but have a backup bottle on hand, just in case the first isn't good.

A reader emailed with a question about disintegrating corks. While stuck at home, he had decided to open some older vintages dating back to 1995 from his collection instead of waiting for those special occasions that never seem to come.

"Unfortunately, a couple of times the corks were totally dried out, and I managed to decimate them while opening." The bottles had spent most of their lives stored horizontally, but had stood upright for three months during renovation. Could that be the problem, he asked.

Probably not, I replied, as I've frequently found dried-out crumbly corks in older bottles. The culprit is more likely low humidity in the storage area. I recommended he splurge on a Durand, the one plus ultra of wine openers, specially designed with older corks in mind. 

The Durand is a combination of a traditional spiral corkscrew and the two-pronged ah-so opener. You insert the spiral through the cork, then the prongs between the cork and the bottle. A slow twist-and-pull motion removes the cork without the force of a lever that can break it in half.  If you drink a lot of old vintages, it's worth it.

The Washington Post

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