Punting the Cork Conundrum

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I did a wine tasting for a client a couple of weeks ago, which I would classify as one of my more fun ones…

The fun ones tend to be very casual and interactive, with conversations that do not necessarily involve the wines we have on the table for the evening. For that particular evening, we decided to talk about some wine myths, and here are some things we came up with:

1) THE CORK CONUNDRUM

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Clockwise, from bottom left: A more modern Bordeaux wine cork with inscriptions, a cork from a 1979 Burgundy, a cork from a Spanish Rosé (Cuatro Pasos, Barcino’s)

Which one is the best cork: The organic traditional cork, the plastic cork, or the screw cap?

It really depends on who you’re talking to: People whose countries normally produce wines sealed with traditional corks normally favour them, while people from modern wine producing countries that use plastic corks or screw caps will fight for these. I use the term fight because I once spoke to an Aussie sommelier who spoke favourably about plastic corks with a passion. 😉

Let’s try to look at the corks objectively:

Traditional corks have been around for ages and have stood the test of time in terms of keeping our wines sealed long enough for the next generation to consume. IT’S NOT TRUE that it being organic contributes to the wine’s taste (think about it: Even if you decide to store your wine upside down for 30 years then decide to open it, the cork would have interacted with a minimal portion of the wine… Not enough to merit a significant change in terms of taste). On the same token, the characteristics of the wine will not rub off on the cork (hence smelling the cork will not tell you anything about the wine). Modern cork advocates tend to slam traditional corks for its difficulty in opening and being “prone” to erode over the years. IMHO, there is no such thing as a difficult cork to a waiter with mad skills, and erosion would most likely occur due to poor storage. How else can we say that a vintage Chateu Latour (sealed with a traditional cork) is awesome?

Modern, plastic corks and screw caps will not erode, I agree. As to the difficulty in opening, I have encountered some plastic corks that gave me a harder time than traditional corks. Like I said, it really involves the waiter’s skill more than anything. I agree that if you have a dinner that will make you serve 50 wines, I’d rather you use screw cap wines (if you can open a bottle of water, you can open these babies… IT’S THAT EASY). To be truthful, a lot of traditionalists (some may argue wine snobs) would prefer the traditional corks for the, well, tradition.

Trivia: Most Old World regions (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc) will have a bigger chance of having a traditional cork (careful with the French ones, they’re mostly long; Spanish corks are generally short). Australia and New Zealand would most likely have a screw cap bottle.

In conclusion, none of the corks are better than the others… Simply think about your audience and purpose before choosing. The notion that traditional corks mean a better quality wine is not really true. This thinking prompted wine makers to seal their higher end wines with traditional corks, but seriously, don’t shun a good Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc just because it’s a screw cap.

2) PUNT THE PUNT!

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A punt is the notch normally found at the bottom of a wine bottle. There are a couple of “legends” that shed light to its origins.

The first legend goes like this: In the old days, wine bottles were made by glass blowing, and the “notch” gets left behind after the bottle gets detached. The second seems more plausible: The Champagne region, the pioneers of making sparkling wine, found that the air pressure from inside their bottles of bubbly kept causing the bottles to break. The design of a traditional Champagne bottle (with a deep punt) allowed more glass area to absorb the pressure, reducing the chance of breakage (so scientific!). The bottles were apparently designed by people from Newcastle, England.

These days, these notches gave rise to a few myths. For instance, the deeper the notch, the better the wine. Not really. I’ve encountered cheap, horrible wine with crazy punts, and fabulous Alsace wines with no punts. Some waiters use these to serve wine, thinking that that’s what it’s there for. THIS IS NOT TRUE (see previously mentioned origins). There was never any evidence that this is the purpose of punts, and may I just say, it is HORRIBLY DANGEROUS to serve wines using their punts. The way some waiters do it is to place their thumb in the punt, with their index and middle finger on either side of the bottom of the bottle, using their ring and pinkie finger as an anchor. This allows for minimal stability, and as I’ve stressed, is DANGEROUS. Many a bottle have been dropped and spilled using this method.

These are just some wine myths I’ve encountered recently, I’m sure I’ll be encountering more in the future which will bring about interesting conversations. Feel free to share some of yours.

Cheers!

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