Opening a bottle of wine is not the most difficult thing to master, but people still feel apprehensive if they have not had a lot of practice. Probably because the first time they tried to open a bottle of wine it was with the curly screw on the outside of a camping jackknife. Driving the screw or auger into the cork, you held the bottle between your legs and pulled until the veins on your forehead were near bursting, broke the cork then pushed the rest of the cork through the neck with a stick.
Though not the most elegant method, or “methode” if you prefer, you still opened a bottle of wine, and it really didn’t do you any harm.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is simply finding the type of opener that suits you best. There are lots of different kinds out there, each with their own pros and cons. Choosing the right one for you, will make opening a bottle of wine as easy as drinking it.
Unless they have a screw top, most bottles of wine are sealed with a natural or synthetic cork and are covered with a plastic or lead foil capsule. In some cases, there may even be a coating of thick wax covering the cork.
All the common types of corkscrews can do the job of removing a cork, but do have some differences. Some of the factors to consider are portability, ease of use (in terms of arm and hand strength), durability, the ability to keep the cork from breaking and cost/benefit of the tool.
The opener that meets most of these requirements is the waiter’s corkscrew, or commonly called the “waiter’s friend”, for many reasons.
The waiter’s friend is quite portable and contains an auger, and a small knife blade to cut the close-fitting foil or capsule covering the top of the wine bottle. There is also a notched lever at one end that rests against the lip of the bottle and acts as a fulcrum to help ease the cork out of the bottle when you lift up the handle. Lever, auger and blade fold neatly into the handle like a pocketknife for safety and portability. This tool is one of the best all-round options.
But any screw-type tool risks breaking the cork, so the “Ah-so” cork remover is perhaps best for removing a very old cork. It has a handle and two prongs that slide between the cork and bottleneck, somewhat like using a knife to loosen a cake from the side of the pan. This is a little trickier than the waiter’s friend and takes a bit of practice.
The lever pull style of corkscrew also has an auger, but it has handles that grip the bottleneck and a lever, like a garlic press that’s opened flat, then pressed toward the grips, driving the auger into the cork. Lifting the handle back again pulls it out.
This device is quite a bit bulkier, but does not require that much arm and hand strength to use. They are a bit more expensive, and in my experience, get wobbly and eventually break down. But a nice feature is that you can remove the cork easily, by just grasping the handles above the cork and repeating the motion for opening the bottle and the cork will pop right off the screw.
The screw pull style of opener has an extra long auger, which is screwed into the cork and allows it to ride up the auger without actually pulling up the cork. Both the lever pull and screw pull are rough on brittle corks and have difficulty penetrating synthetic corks and are not so adept with the flare-lipped bottle.
The carbon dioxide capsule cork remover is one of the easiest to use, as it requires the least amount of strength. This device has a hollow steel needle, which is inserted all the way through the cork, and then the Carbon dioxide cartridge is depressed, causing a powerful stream of gas to push the cork up from inside the bottleneck. The cork also removes easily as there is a plastic plate above the pulled cork, which is pushed down sliding the cork off the needle.
This is a fun and snappy corkscrew, but you’ll spend a bit on the canisters, approximately $10 for a pack of two cartridges. A cartridge is good for 20 to 30 bottles because at some point, they become too weak to push up the cork easily. They are also not very effective on synthetic corks or bottles with a wax seal, as the needle can get clogged with wax or get bent when inserted into a synthetic cork.
The wing type corkscrew is the one that most people are familiar with after they graduate from the jackknife. They are a common household item and readily available in most supermarkets. It has two wing-like handles, which rise as the screw is pushed into the cork by turning a key on top. The cork is pulled up when the wing levers are pushed down. Maybe because they are so cheaply made, the gears at the wing levers tend to strip and the rather thick auger can often break the cork. The advantage of this device is that it doesn’t take too much brute force and it drives the screw through the cork nice and straight. . But it can be rather difficult to take the cork off the auger.
The first step to opening the wine is to cut or remove the foil or plastic capsule. Many plastic capsules have a little tab, like on a pack of gum that can be pulled to expose the cork. Otherwise, cut the foil at the protruding lip of the bottle with a serrated knife. Don’t use your good knives, as the lead foil will really dull them.
Then choose one of the above-mentioned openers and open the bottle as described. It is a good idea to keep a towel around for any accidents or at least to wipe off the top of the bottle to clear away any moisture or mold that may have developed under the capsule.
If by any chance the cork breaks, the Ah-so opener may be your best bet to get the cork out, or using the waiter’s friend, you can drive the auger into the cork at an angle and try to work it up against the neck of the bottle. But if all else fails, just push the cork through and decant the wine to make sure any bits of cork don’t get into the wine.
Of course, formal wine service in a restaurant has its prescribed ritual, but when at home, it is best to open your wines in the kitchen and bring them to the table already opened.
The exception to this is opening a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine. Opening a bottle in front of your guests is a big part of the fun of serving any wine of this type.
The safest method for opening a bottle of champagne is to wrap the neck in a cloth dinner napkin so the condensation from the cold bottle won’t make it slippery, removing the foil by first untwisting the little metal loop at the bottom of the wire cage, making sure to keep your hand over the cage to avoid any mishaps. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, which will help to avoid the wine from foaming over and twist the neck to loosen the cork. The pressure from inside the bottle will push the cork, unless it has gone flat. Then you can just water the garden with it.
Though these wine openers can all do the job, the waiter’s friend is still probably the most versatile, compact and doesn’t take all that much strength to use. Look for a well-made one with an ergonomic handle with a durable plastic non-slip surface.
But, perhaps there is room in your drawer for an Ah-So opener for those old, brittle corks and a carbon dioxide cork remover, which is really flashy at the table or parties.
A good wine opener makes a great gift and should be included as part of a wine gift basket. Find the opener that you are most comfortable with and let the good times and wine flow freely.
Source: “Great Wine Made Simple” by Andrea Immer