Wine Corks, ‘Corked’ and Corkscrews
The cork oak, Quercussuber, source of the best cork for sealing bottles, has flourished in parts of Europe for thousands of years, and in fact the use of cork for stoppering bottles or wine containers was known to the Assyrians, ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Pitch was often used by the latter two peoples to seal the cork firmly. However the use of cork in the world of wine then declined, although it still survived in certain Mediterranean regions, notably in Catalonia, where there are still vast cork forests. It appears to have been known in England before the 17th century – perhaps introduced by traders. It is possible, though one cannot be sure, that monks from the Benedictine monastery at Barcelona may have visited their brothers at Hautvillers in Champagne where, at the end of the 17th century, the cellarmaster Dom Perignon achieved the triumphs of making up the cuvee and. by the use of cork, sealing the bottle so as to retain the natural sparkle in the wine. Previously the only way wine was sealed was by a type of wooden, often wrapped in an oily cloth. This made it impossible for wine to remain long in bottle; such bottles as existed were more in the nature of carafes from which the wine was served after being drawn from the cask.
The cork oak must be at least 20 years old before its bark can first be stripped, then 8 to 9 years must elapse before subsequent strippings. The stripped cork is cut into sections, then boiled and, if first-class cork is involved, left to mature outdoors. Corks are cut either by hand from blocks of solid cork, or else by machine. Hand-cut corks are basically straight sided, with rounded edges, and are superior for sealing. All corks, after cutting, must be trimmed and cleaned so that grain markings are removed. In former times, they were washed before being inserted, but nowadays they are sterilised and may also be subjected to hot or cold waxing, for easier corking.
A ‘full long’ cork, used now only for vintage port and occasionally for the finest red wines, is a 2 inch (5 cm) cork, nearly always hand cut. It will be appreciated that the slight bulge in the neck of the bottle used for vintage port is to accommodate the cork and enable it to swell and grip the bottle. The fine clarets and red Burgundies are nowadays usually corked with the Bordeaux cork, measuring Vin in (4.75 cm). Wines which are not intended for long-term laying down are usually corked with a ‘short long’ cork, of VA in (4.5 cm). Half bottles may be corked with the same length of cork as bottles; this is usual in the U.K., but varies throughout Europe, where shorter corks may be used, and also where different bottles and 35 fl.oz (1 litre) bottles are widely used.
A ‘stopper cork’ is the type often used for non-vintage fortified wines – a metal or plastic top of greater diameter being attached to a cork. A ‘crown cork’ is a layer of cork within a metal cap which has to be levered off – the kind of top used on many soda or fizzy drink bottles. An ‘alka type seal’ is a metal cap that comes over the top of the bottle, within which there is a plastic stopper. This is the sort of closure much in use in wines for everyday consumption in Europe. A plastic stopper may be used for a variety offine wines nowadays, including sherry and certain sparkling wines. Because these are not intended to be kept for long periods before being drunk, the use of plastic is an economy and has not apparently had any effect on the wines.
Cork is still used for the finer Champagnes, although experiments have been made with plastic for the less expensive wines. The Champagne cork can be both costly and difficult to make. The very finest type of second cork is made of several pieces of fine quality cork stuck together so that, rather like the butcher’s chopping block, they take the strain of the wine’s pressure and expand within the bottle neck. The top of the ‘mushroom’ of the Champagne cork obviously need not be of the same quality as that part of the cork which is in contact with the wine, although it must be strong. The metal capsule on the top was evolved to prevent the wire or string holding the cork in from biting through the cork. Many Champagne corks are made with a layer or more of cork fragments bonded together – or ‘agglomerated’ – except for the part in contact with the wine and on the top. The use of a wholly non-agglome cork today is both expensive and. some would say, not necessary because of improvements in the making of the wine. But one great Champagne house still refuses to use fragmented corks.
The wines of many of the great estates have corks on which the name of the property and the vintage of the wine are branded. The presence of such a cork should indicate the genuineness of the wine. But in certain years of war or crisis in the past, when corks were difficult to get, many estates were obliged to use ordinary corks, so that the fact that a cork of, say, a 1943 classed growth claret is not branded, is not a fair reason for suspecting that the wine is not what it purports to be on the label. Merchants often use branded corks, but the detail on these is usually confined to their name or initials. A Champagne cork is usually branded on its base – the part in contact with the wine – when it is branded at all, although there may also be an additional brand on the side of the cork.
Obviously a red wine will, after a while, stain the cork with which it has been in contact. It is unlikely that a wine bearing a vintage date of 10 years earlier will have a dead-white cork. However there are certain circumstances when it might and. as the staining of a cork varies according to the precise intensity of the colour of the wine, the type of cork, and whether this is waxed or not, instantaneous condemnation and rejection of a wine because its cork is not as stained as the purchaser expects, is unwise without a lot of experience. For example, sometimes wines are rebottled, both to suit the requirements of a market – bottles into halves, or, indeed, to bottle off deposit – or because the supplier has reason to believe that the cork may not be holding up as well as it should. There may be a trace of seepage (the bottle is then described as a ‘weeper’). or the wine may be very old. or may have had originally to be bottled when corks were in short supply. Recorking in such conditions can do no harm at all: indeed, it may preserve the wine.
It is probably true that far more bottles are returned to their source of supply as being ‘corked’ than actually are so. Drinkers often just do not like a wine, mistake a touch of ‘bottle stink’, or a defect such as the use of a dirty bottle, a touch of woodiness (from a faulty stave in the cask), or simply bits of cork in the wine. for ‘corkiness’. It is also sometimes difficult to tell when a wine is first poured whether or not it is corked – the corkiness may only develop to a pronounced extent after a few minutes or even half an hour. But there are several things to bear in mind: drinking a corked wine may be unpleasant – depending on the degree to which it is corked – but will not harm the drinker. The smelling of the cork will not inevitably indicate whether or not it is corked, and the actual smell of corkiness is not, to everyone, a smell of clean cork – to some people it is evocative of chlorine, to others of drains.
In general, a wine that smells of little at the outset, that then has a smell unlike that of a wine at all, and that develops a type of flat, chemical sort of flavour will probably be a wine that can be described as ‘corked’. If one is in doubt, a comparison of the questionable bottle with that of another one usually clears up any hesitation – although there have been instances when three bottles in succession have all been corked! This is also why it is essential always to taste each bottle separately, in a clean glass, so as to avoid the risk of pouring corked wine on top of sound wine.
The cause of corkiness is not necessarily a faulty cork, or the action of the cork weevil, or a seepage of wine through the cork; although it can sometimes be related to one or more of these. But if the drinker can distinguish, with a faulty wine, between one that is corky, one that is musty, and one that is casky, the three main faults that may be found in a wine in bottle will be recognised. In each instance, the bottle, sealed up again, should be returned to the source of supply as soon as possible, and the supplier should be notified as to the comments passed when the bottle was opened.
However, in restaurants, many bottles in perfect condition are returned, simply because drinkers chose something they didn’t like, or couldn’t taste after drinking quantities of spirits. The wise sommelier will simply agree that the customer is always right, replace the bottle or advise another wine, and drink the rejected wine for his supper, if not returning it to the supplier.
Because of the comparatively recent use of cork to stopper the wine bottle, the corkscrew (or bottlescrew as it was first called) did not come into being until the beginning of the 18th century. It is surprising that, with the great variety on the market at the present time, very few sold to the general public are of the slightest use in getting a cork out of a bottle. Whatever type is selected, there are a few things that every efficient corkscrew should have: it should be long enough to go to the bottom of a full long cork; it should not have sharp edges on the sides of the spiral, which will cut up the cork and possibly make the whole thing crumble; and, most important of all, the spiral should be a true spiral, and continue in its curve right to the tip. The type of corkscrew that ends in a sharp point, like a gimlet. will merely pierce through the cork and not grip it, so that, as it is pulled, it may simply be drawn straight back through the now-disintegrating cork. A good corkscrew, of whatever type, should have a long. of rounded material, and, whether a single or double spiral, one should be able to look up through it, like looking up a spiral staircase.