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Another key to keeping wine fresh and good the cork

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
April 24, 2002
There's one element to the taste of wine about which we have never written. We've talked about bottle shapes, the grapes, vintage years and the effect of light and temperature on wine. But there's one more key factor. The cork.
Every wine drinker knows wine bottles are kept on their side in order that the cork remains wet. True to a point, but there is no guarantee that air won't find its way into the bottle.
A faulty cork produces corky or corked wine. When air gets in, the wine begins to change and the flavor deteriorates. In a relatively short time, it develops an unpleasant taste and the cork will smell of itself, not of the wine. That's why a restaurant waiter pulls the cork from a bottle of wine and places it in front of the customer for him or her to smell.
It's not just for show. There's a purpose.
Next time you purchase wine in a restaurant, pick the cork up and smell the part that was in the bottle. If you detect a musty or moldy odor, send the wine back. The cork should smell like the wine inside and if it does not, the wine will taste like the cork smells. The same is true of wine purchased at your favorite package store. They can't make you a regular customer if they happen by chance to sell you a bottle of corky wine and they won't replace it.
You must remember cork was once a living thing. It is made from the bark of a cork tree and it does not have the life expectancy of the glass bottle itself. Some corks are bad because they have an invisible vein which over a period of time deteriorates and turn moldy. There is no blame to be assessed to the wine maker or the merchant selling the wine. It is a fact of nature and may happen to the best of wines.
Most of you do not keep wine long enough to run into the problem of the crumbling cork, but every true collector has had the problem. The corks in some of my older wines, wines from the 1960s or 1970s, I can almost guarantee will crumble when I attempt to pull them from the bottle. It doesn't matter whether the bottle's been on its side or not. They have a certain life expectancy and no more.
One way to handle the problem is insert the corkscrew slightly sideways, turn the bottle on its side so the pressure of the wine is on the inside portion of the cork, then turn the corkscrew gently, putting some upward leverage to lift the bottom of the cork against the upper side of the bottle.
Another way is to take a wine coat hangar and make a small hook on the end. Slide it down the glass in the neck of the bottle until it gets below the cork. Then pull it out slowly and easily to bring the cork with it. As a last resort, push the broken cork in the bottle and pour it out through a strainer into a second container. But be careful when you push the cork in because the wine will squirt out if you don't.
Champagne corks look as if they are a completely different matter, but they are not. For champagne a cork with the same cylindrical shape is used but it's a little fatter than that on still wine. It is inserted halfway. Then the familiar metal cap is put over the cork. Both are given a heavy blow which flattens the part which was outside the bottle and under the cap. It gives the cork the well-known mushroom shape. At that point the wire muzzle is put over the cap and the cork to protect it from blowing out as a result of the pressure from inside the bottle.
You will notice that the better the wine the longer the cork. Some of the great wines from Bordeaux have corks almost twice as long as those used in lesser wines. Corks cost money but each producer in his own way is trying to protect his investment. The amount of that investment can determine how much the winery is willing to spend on corks.
There is a move to find substitutes for cork. Some wineries are now using a plastic cork. It never deteriorates and it doesn't shrink away from the bottle. But it can be very hard to get out and most consumers don't like it.
Some of the more adventuresome wineries have put part of their production in bottles with screw-on caps. Because screw-ons are generally associated with inexpensive, low quality wines, the majority of the top wine makers have been reluctant to try it, even though it gives the wine much more protection. Using screw-tops on only a small portion of their production is really more of a test than a trend. Don't be surprised if over the next few years it catches on.
Thursday night's "Anything But Chardonnay" tasting will present eight different summer/spring type wines many of them somewhat unknown from America, Alsace, France, Italy and New Zealand, but all of them are worthy. As we've said before, none of them are chardonnays. We'll taste chardonnays in the future.
Thursday's variety is wide ranging, from various dry white and red wines to those of the sweeter variety. They will give you ideas for entertaining your guests on the patio or in your den this warm season in accordance with your individual tastes.
There are spaces still available, so call 482-0930 and make a reservation. The price for the tasting is $25. For you first timers, the tasting is at Northwood Country Club starting at 6:30 p.m. You do not have to be a member of the club. Any wine lover is welcome. Call and if we're not available, leave your reservation on our voice mail. You'll have fun.