Thursday 14 November 2013

Cork – some bits of advice

Here’s a thing. I looked at the glass of wine I had poured myself, and it had fragments of cork in it. Which made me a happy man.

Now, we are not talking chunks. We’re not talking about a crumbling old port cork disintegrating into bits the size of molars. We’re talking grains of rice. Neither planks nor motes, but somewhere between the two.

No-one’s going to die from swallowing cork. Swallowing a cork, possibly, as I imagine it could happily plug any orifice from your throat to your anus, with fatal consequences for your through traffic. But not swallowing titchy little bits of cork.

And it’s not going to spoil the wine. Look at it this way – the wine’s been in contact with that cork for years. Anything it was going to do to the wine, it would have done by now. A few minutes more is hardly going to make any difference.

There are some wine buffs who just love it when there are bits of cork in the wine, because they know some ordinary mortal at the table is going to say “Oh, is the wine corked?” Cue the wine snob smirk, and “Ah no, that’s not actually ‘corked’ as such. When you say a wine is ‘corked’, it doesn’t mean it’s got cork in it.” (Oh no, that would be far too obvious for an arcane subject like wine.) 

“When a wine is corked, it means…” and cue as lengthy an explanation of corked wine as a wine buff feels is appropriate and/or impressive enough for their audience. (Wine spoilt by the presence of the chemical TCA, usually transferred from the cork, will do for me.)

But then someone says “Oh, fair enough. So what do you wine experts call it when you have bits of cork in your wine?” And your wine buff haws and hems and says “Well, we generally refer to that as, er, having bits of cork in your wine.”

I’ve never seen an issue with cork fragments myself. If they’re small, you can ignore them; if they’re slightly bigger, you can swirl them up onto the side of the glass. And if they’re big, you can just hoick them out with your finger.

Why do people have a problem with this? Are they concerned about getting wine on their fingers? Or fingers in their wine?

If people are happy holding lamb cutlets, spare ribs and the limbs of small birds, which deposit grease all over your digits, why would they baulk at getting wine on their fingers? And if they’re happy touching their bread, why do they baulk at their fingers touching their wine?

Yet to comfort all fastidious drinkers, there was a surprisingly popular post doing the rounds a fortnight or so ago which recommended that you remove fragments of cork from your wine with a drinking straw, using it as a kind of pipette. Put the straw over the fragment, your finger over the other end of the straw (to create a vacuum) and lift. Voila.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have straws at my dining table. I might if a small child were present, but I would rather put my finger in my wine than borrow the straw of a juice-dribbling toddler. 

If in a restaurant, I would strongly suggest not requesting the two items together as a precautionary tactic. You would certainly get a funny look in the dining rooms of St James’s asking for “A bottle of Lynch-Bages 89 and a straw, please.”

Indeed, if you’re going to introduce a special cork-fragment-removing implement to the table, why not a pair of shiny tweezers rather than a straw? Much more in keeping with the cutlery. And perhaps from that manufacturer whose name never ceases to amuse me, Tweezerman, as if there is a superhero whose threat to baddies consists of “Tell me where the money is, or I’ll tweeze you so badly…”

But…far from being a problem, I saw the fragments in my own wine as a positive thing. 

Because they reminded me that this bottle had had a cork. Not a depressingly functional screwcap. Nor that hideous kind of flesh-coloured plastic bung which tries to impersonate a cork but looks more like a medical appliance. No, the presence of cork in my wine reminded me that I had actually opened a proper bottle of Bordeaux; Chateau Fougere La Noble 2009

So of course it had a cork. What I was about to drink was not industrialised, branded and bargained, grubbed up from the bottom shelf amongst the passing footwear and trolley wheels. Those little floating bits presaged a traditional, authentic, chateau-bottled wine.

And indeed it was, a proper Classics master of a claret; a little stern and rigid at first, always reminding us of the importance of structure, but coming on with smoothness, warmth and honesty, and leaving behind a woody, smoky trail. 

So I was entitled to feel happy. Fragments of cork in your wine are not a problem. And if they announce an authentic, traditional wine experience like that, then they’re alright by me. Float, float on.



  1. "Cue the wine snob smirk..." Thank you for writing such a hilarious (and informative and well-written) blog! I look forward to each new post .. even the corked ones. - Johanna

    1. Thank you! - and apologies for any "corked" posts.

      (Are those ones in which, like TCA, we have an adverse reaction?)

    2. Ha! No, I was just trying to be cute. :)

  2. I truly love your blogs, but will have to politely disagree with you on this one.

    When I worked in a wine shop the sort of person who would come in and refuse, or be at least a little despondent about, a beautiful wine simply because of its closure, used to make me want smash whatever travesty they had selected (on the basis of it having a cork even after I'd told them it was as attractive as Bernard Manning) and then carve off pieces of their face with the shards. A bit like that scene in 'Hannibal' when he tells him to try peeling off his face and feeding it to the dogs.

    Being nostalgic about the bit of tree one shoves in the top of a bottle makes about as much sense to me as being nostalgic about outhouses. Or polio.

    1. I clearly need some kind of Pavlovian reprogramming, so that I can salivate at the possibilities heralded by the crack of a screwcap…



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