The question: The rubber or rubber-plastic amalgam corks being used in some lovely wines from Spain are driving me crazy: Two good corkscrews have broken. Is there a corkscrew that works better?
The answer: Sounds like you detest those corks as much as I do. There is, indeed, a preferred corkscrew. …
Synthetic corks arrived in a big way in the 1990s, though I’m happy to report they’re in retreat, in part because of the reason you cite. They were, and in some cases still are, seen as an aesthetically attractive solution to the scourge of cork taint. Natural corks are easily contaminated by a fungus that can lead to a foul odour and taste. Screw-caps, now far more prevalent than synthetic corks, have proven to be a far better solution, if less elegant.
The nice thing about natural cork is that it’s extremely elastic, forming a tight seal in the bottleneck but also yielding easily to the poke and pull of a corkscrew. Synthetic corks, which have the same cylindrical dimensions as their tree-bark cousins, are much more rigid and less forgiving. (That’s why they’re often impossible to cram back into a neck of a half-finished bottle.) Piercing with a corkscrew forces the cylindrical exterior to compress tightly against the inner wall of the bottleneck, creating strong friction as you try to extract the blasted thing.
This squeeze play compromises the effectiveness of several types of corkscrew, most notably those fancy lever-pull models based on the original brand called Screwpull. The reason: Lever-pull models, by necessity, have a narrow-diameter coil. (Imagine a bed spring, then imagine that spring pulled at both ends in opposite directions; the diameter of the coil shrinks as the spring gets longer.) The purpose of that design is to make it easier for the coil to penetrate the cork with an easy swing of the lever. But it comes with a drawback. There’s less grip in the other direction when you swing the lever the other way to extract the cork. It works well with natural cork, but often that grip is not strong enough to dislodge a tightly fitted synthetic cork.
The same issue applies to most of those old-school corkscrews with the twin levers, or arms, that you operate simultaneously with two hands. The screws can be very narrow, more like a drill bit with a solid centre post than a true coil.
The best weapon in this frustrating wrestling match is a so-called waiter’s friend. That’s the corkscrew that looks a little bit like a Swiss army knife. The coil folds out from the handle to form a 90-degree angle with the handle, and it has a wide coil for solid grip. There’s also an arm that swings out from one end of the handle to rest against the top of the bottle neck, providing leverage as you pull up on the handle to yank out the cork. If that sounds confusing, Google “waiter’s friend” and you’ll see what it looks like. It’s my favourite corkscrew and the choice of most sommeliers, which explains the name. The operation can take some practice, but it’s worth the effort if you’re keen to keep enjoying those lovely Spanish wines – until Spanish (and other) producers come to their senses and move away from synthetic corks.
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