Tricks To Uncorking Really Old Wines

I truly am blessed to be able to taste many wines that are as old (or maybe I should say as young) as I am.

And more often than not, when my friends bring such bottles, I am lucky enough to be the one to open them.

Being a master sommelier certain comes with its benefits as well as responsibilities. But I do not mind at all. The thing is, when bottles get to this age, it requires some practice and technique to be able to extract the cork.

Here are some of my tips to help you when the opportunity arises.

As with any good craftsman, you must choose the proper equipment. There are dozens of wine openers available, but there are two that are indispensable for opening bottles that are 30-plus years old.

The first is the screwpull. This is a French-designed wine opener (the French would have plenty of practice opening wine bottles) that is basically a single worm that screws into the cork and simultaneously pulls the cork out. It is quite gentle and is by far the longest worm in the business. It is pretty much idiot-proof as well. Just insert the worm and twist.

The “ah-so” is the other tool that any card-carrying sommelier should carry. This is a dual-pronged tool that one inserts between the cork and the glass in the neck of the bottle.

One prong is longer than the other and should be inserted first. Then slide both prongs into the neck of the bottle by rocking it back and forth, making sure to go slowly and without enough force to accidentally push the cork into the bottle.

Once both prongs are pushed all the way down, you extract the cork by slowly twisting and pulling the ah-so upward. Be sure to only use the handle on the ah-so and try not to hold the prongs together with your hand. This could break the cork as the pressure on the cork becomes uneven.

There also is a wine key called the Durand, which combines both of these tools. However, it’s quite pricey and, in many cases, not necessarily superior in result.

My best advice is always to go slowly. That bottle has waited a long time to be opened; it will wait a few more seconds for you to pull the cork out in its entirety.

When using the screw-pull, you also want to make sure that, as you pull the cork up, the vacuum that you are creating within the bottle is equalized, otherwise the cork could break. The only way to do this is to go slowly.

The other down side with the screwpull is on occasion the worm will break off a tiny bit of cork at the bottom when it comes out.

On the other hand, if the cork does break in mid-extraction, you can use the screwpull’s lengthy worm to extract the part that didn’t come out.

When, not if (breaking a cork or two is inevitable with aged bottles), use chopsticks – the bamboo type, not the plastic ones – to extract the cork bits from the bottle.

When all else fails, decant the wine through a funnel with a screen. Many wines of this age will need decanting, in any case.

And if it is one of those very delicate wines that may not withstand the decanting, just pour out the first ounce or so into a spare glass so you do not have to strain those cork bits with your teeth.

Whether or not the cork comes out whole is really dependent on the condition of the cork itself, which in turn also can be affected by the storage conditions of the bottle. And, in many cases, much of this is out of our control.

But when you are able to extract the cork in one piece, you should congratulate yourself.

It really is not as easy as it looks.

By the way, there may come a time when wine-opening devices will be historical artifacts. At least in the new world, more top-end wineries are going to screwcap closures.

Recommendation: 2009 Einaudi Dolcetto di Dogliani ($22) Einaudi is synonymous with great Barolo, but do not sleep on this Dolcetto. It is brimming with sweet-smelling blue and black fruit and has a luxurious texture. The best Dolcetto I have tasted this year.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.