Wine corks: What to do with them?
You're at a restaurant. You order a bottle of wine. The server or sommelier returns and shows you the bottle to confirm your choice. You chat politely with your guests as the server withdraws the cork and then take note as it is placed to your right on a carefully folded napkin.
Wine has its rituals. Before you pour you have to get the cork out. But what can the cork tell you about the wine?
The server stands by expectantly, and a hush falls over the table. What should you do?
For many wine drinkers, even those with experience, the cork in the bottle poses some questions, both practical and polite. What does the cork tell you about the wine? Should you taste the wine first or examine the cork?
Cork is a natural product. It comes from the bark of the cork oak tree, most widely planted in southern Spain and Portugal but also in parts of the American west. The cork grows in a thick layer that can be harvested every five to seven years but must then be allowed to grow back before being peeled off again. Individual corks are punched out of the bark layer and sterilized in processing to become the stoppers in bottles.
Cork was used in the ancient world but didn't really become the universal seal for wine until the mid 16th century, when mass produced bottles became the universal vessel. With bottle and cork came fine aged wine, careful cellaring, erudite collecting, and expensive, rare older vintages. And the ceremonial presentation of the cork at table.
The original reason the cork was presented was to assure the diner that the wine's provenance, its origin, was authentic. In the old days a label was hand inscribed and could be easily faked. But the cork, with the brand of the bottling estate on its flank, could not be verified, or tampered with, until it was pulled.
Sometimes the cork can be very clean looking. But sometimes it's stained or looks as if it has soaked up a fair portion of wine. Sometimes the cork is cracked, sometimes it shows sediment or is crusted with chunky crystals on the surface that were in the bottle. What if the cork smells slightly of mold or wet basement? Sometimes the cork may only come out in pieces. Modern corks are sometimes not cork at all but plastic.
Corks are a natural product with some natural problems that have inspired increased use of screw caps
Corks can offer hints about the wine inside, but only hints. A cork that looks as if it has soaked up the wine may be nearly exhausted. If the entire cork is stained it could be that the seal has been compromised. Likewise with a crack, which might indicate a faulty seal. The sediment or crystals that sometimes attach to the cork indicate only a wine with significant extract or phenolics that have had time enough to precipitate out. These sometimes also collect at the bottom of a bottle or stain the inner surface at the neck or shoulder. That's not a flaw but may indicate that you should decant the wine carefully to avoid the sediment. You may find mold or residue on the top of the cork before you open it. At a restaurant the waiter will generally wipe this away before you see it, and if you're at home you should do the same. Even mold, if it's on the outside of the bottle, should not concern you. The smell of mold, though, may be a sign the wine is corked, which means spoiled by a bacterial infection. If a wine is corked this odor will only get worse as the wine is open. If the cork is plastic, forget it. It won't tell you a thing.
But, let's say you notice some of these issues. Should you complain, ask for another bottle, refuse to taste the wine or, if you're at home, quickly grab another bottle? You should always sniff and taste the wine. The flaws that may be hinted at by a gross-looking cork--cracked, moldy, stained or smelly--may not actually exist. A really older bottle is bound to have something going on with the cork. It may be soft, spongy, or crumbly, but I've experienced some phenomenal wine that came from under a putrid cork.
When you are presented with the cork you can squeeze it, sniff it, or look at it, especially if it seems unusual in some way. But it's also okay to completely ignore it. Don't judge a wine by its cork. Let your senses tell you if the wine is good, bad, or fantastic. Give yourself a moment. Fatal flaws will readily present themselves and become more evident in time. Dismiss a wine too quickly and you may be sending away the wine of your life.