Here’s the Wine Me Up! guide to corks, corkscrews, stoppers, and keeping opened bottles fresh.
First let’s talk about the way the bottle is sealed when you take it off the shelf. You’ll see screwcaps, natural cork (either a solid piece or built up from cork fragments), various types of artificial corks, and even some glass stoppers. You may even be buying wine in a box that has a spigot. The bottom line – unless you are collecting some really expensive stuff, or storing wine for a long time, it doesn’t matter how the bottle was sealed. They all do a good-enough job of keeping the liquid in, and the air out.
There are plenty of choices here, but there are four or five basic styles that are sufficiently powerful, easy to keep in a kitchen drawer, and reliable and fool-proof enough to use every day. Of course, with a screwcap bottle, you don’t need any of these – but check back for a video demonstration on a fun way to open those.
Butterfly: most people are familiar with these. It’s biggest advantage is that you use both hands to pull down on the lever arms to force the cork out – which is a real plus if you’ve got impaired hand strength or stability. This kind of corkscrew is also inexpensive and durable. Unfortunately, the solid metal core of the screw means that the butterfly opener is more likely to destroy the cork; don’t use it on old corks, because quite likely it will leave all sorts of pieces behind in the bottle.
Waiter’s Corkscrew: every bartender’s best friend. This is small enough to keep in your pocket, but has a surprisingly powerful lever action once you know how to use it. This does require practice and technique – I’ll post a quick YouTube video about them sometime – but once you master it, this is quick and easy, it leaves the cork almost entirely intact, and it comes with a small knife for cutting off the capsule. With heavy use, this will eventually break – but even a basic $10 waiter’s corkscrew should be good enough for more than 1000 bottles.
Screwpull™, Rabbit™, and similar lever-action brands: these use a powerful lever and a nonstick screw for extra power and speed. They are fun and elegant, have almost no learning cureve, and are almost sure to get out even stubborn corks – but they cost $50 to $150, won’t fit in your pocket, and require regular maintenance. I have a middle-of-the-road model that I use at home, and it’s opened hundreds of bottles. Just make sure you keep the housing of the screw tightened down, or else it will slip.
Butler’s Friend: you’re looking at that and wondering how on earth that works! This is by far the hardest to learn to use, and it’s totally unsuitable for most artificial corks. But if you have a really ancient, crusty bottle with a soft, crumbling cork, this may be your only hope of opening it without resorting to power tools. If you master this, it’s a real trick to use it in front of your friends. Unless you’ve got a physical condition that makes the butterfly your only real choice, I don’t recommend it. Get a waiter’s corkscrew to take on picnics, and a lever-action opener for home. You’ll get the job done quickly and easily, without risk to the wine or your tablecloth.
It’s a good idea to have a nice stopper on hand for resealing a bottle. If the original cork has deteriorated, or it’s one of those artificial corks that needs industrial equipment to shove back into the bottle, you should have a simple stopper that uses a conical cork or rubber element on hand. You can find these accessories online or in wine stores, often with elegant marble, glass, ceramic, or wood decoration. As long as it stays in the bottle, you’re good.
Stoppers for Champagne and other sparkling wines are another matter. Look for a stainless steel and rubber stopper, with two wings that clamp below the flanges around the neck of the bottle. And be careful! A slight slip or bump, and that stopper may go flying out at high speed. Treat those bottles of bubbly carefully, and never point them at a person, a pet, or anything fragile in the house!
Resealing an Open Bottle
You have a couple of choices for tucking away a partially-consumed bottle so you can finish it later on. But regardless of what you do, the refrigerator is your friend! The chemical reactions that cause wine to fade, go sour, or gain off-notes all run faster at higher temperature – so as soon as you know you’r’e not going to finish the bottle, get the rest in the fridge. It only takes 20 minutes for a glass of red to warm from refrigerator temperature to drinking range – and you can always pop the glass in the microwave for 10 seconds to help it along.
Private Preserve™ and other gas systems: these products squirt some Nitrogen, Argon, and other neutral gases into the bottle, displacing the Oxygen – which is the primary driver of spoilage.
Vacuum pumps: these devices – a combination of a rubber stopper and a small piston-driven pump – create a partial vacuum in the bottle in order to reduce the amount of Oxygen.
Half-bottles: whenever you empty a half-sized bottle of wine (375 ml), wash it out and save it. Use a funnel to transfer what’s left of your partially-finished product into the half-bottle, stopper it, and put it in the fridge. By removing all that head space, you’ve reduced the amount of Oxygen. And a half-bottle is exactly what you’re going to have if you drink two 6-ounce glasses with dinner!
And of course, you can just cork the original bottle without any fuss, and sling it into the refrigerator. Naturally acidic wines take longer to spoil anyway; if you had 2 glasses of Pinot Grigio on Friday night and intend to finish the bottle off Saturday evening, there probably won’t be a noticeable change to the flavor over those 24 hours.
Of the above methods, I prefer to use half-bottles (especially if I won’t finish the wine for 2 or more days) and Private Preserve. I’m not a fan of the vacuum pumps. Stay tuned for another post next week with more details on keeping your wine fresh!