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Ilsley Vineyards

The Wine - Cork Relationship
by Heather Pyle, Ilsley Vineyards Winemaker

     Corks, are natural and, therefore, each one is different. Here’s is what you should expect and look for in a cork:

•  A cork should not have wine seep up it beyond the bottom 25% at most. If wine has crept up the side either due to undo pressure or a cork fault it may not be very good or it may be fine. The capsule over the cork tends to hide this problem before it is opened. The volume of the wine in the bottle (the level in the neck) may also give it away. A small line of wine up the cork very often has no negative effect in my experience but it is best to note the integrity of any red wine cork when it is removed, whether in a restaurant or at home as a clue to what you might expect or give you clues if the wine is not as you expected. Wines that have compromised corks are often oxidized (think the smell of sherry or a cut, browning apple). If you are in a restaurant, these wines can be sent back.

•  Wine under cork should last at least 20 years in ideal conditions (55-60 F consistently with the bottle on its side or upside down). As time passes, the cork loses its flexibility and shrinks in diameter. This sometimes allows air and even liquid pass over time. The constant wetting of the cork from the wine inside helps keep it plump and stops air from passing back and forth with temperature changes.

•  Consistent temperature is as important as actual temperature for wines aged under cork. Cork breathes just a tiny, tiny bit. Air passes by the cork over time. This is greatly accentuated if the bottle is stored upright and/or if the bottle is subjected to wide temperature swings. Changes in temperature change the level of the wine, pushing air out during warming and pulling air in during cooling. Air pulled into the cork advances aging.

•  Wines aged on their sides age better over long periods because they restrict the airflow, whether passive or active, past the cork.

•  Old wines should be opened with a pronged opener (an Ah-So) so that if the cork has lost its firmness, you can still extract it in one piece. Old corks often break because the cork itself has lost it integrity over time. The better the coating on the cork initially, the longer it will last. French Chateau hold recorking events for consumers to bring their very old wines to be recorked to avoid this and resulting wine problems. However, opening a bottle and recorking it has its risks as well.

•  Older wines, except to separate clear wine from sediment, should not be decanted. Decanting wine helps with clarity when needed but the large amounts of air introduced to the wine during decanting can often make the wine seem older than it would have if enjoyed directly from the bottle. For Ilsley Cabernets I’m referring to wines more than 20 years old so this is not a problem for you quite yet. When an older wine has sediment, I prefer to pour the wines into my guests’ glasses at the time of enjoyment, moving from glass to glass without tipping the bottle back, which would mix up the sediment. This requires enough guests to empty the bottle. Otherwise, careful, not splashy, decanting will work but just before consumption. Then the decanter should go into the frig until needed again.

•  Decanting is best done to young wines. The slight misconception about decanting older wines comes from the desire to get rid of the sediment. However, it is the young, tannic reds that benefit most from the air that decanting introduces to the wine. The alternative practice of removing the cork to let the wine breath is a half-step at best. Given the small diameter of the neck, a wine is not really ‘breathing’ when left on the counter with just the cork removed. A better practice would be to pour the wine into glasses ½ hour before you want to drink it to allow the air in the bowl of the glass to contact the wine and help the wine open up aromatically.

•  If the waiter hands you the cork after opening the bottle, it is customary to sniff it. Rarely does this tell us anything but every now and then a musty smelling cork will lead us to a musty smelling wine. Sniff away but while you are at it, take a good look at how well the cork has held up and whether it seems to have kept the wine in the bottle. Look for staining up the cork but wait to taste the wine before making judgment on whether it is okay or not.