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Jacques A. Faro da Silva, director and general manager of the Madeira Wine Company, smells before tasting a vintage 1860 Sercial Solera Madeira wine in Funchal, the capital of Madeira island. Vintage Madeiras stay in a cask for a minimum of 20 years, most of them much longer – up to 100 years or more – and can be dated back into the 18th century.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The question

I have some old bottles of wine (1895 Bual Madeira and several ports) which should – according to wine stewards etc. – be recorked, yet I can't find anyone to do it. Can you help?

The answer

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Generally speaking, you would have to contact the specific wineries in question to inquire whether they offer the service. I am not aware of any independent companies in Canada that provide generic recorking services for just any old wine (though I'd welcome any information to the contrary). It's a delicate procedure and in most cases demands that the bottle be topped up to its original fill level with the same vintage, or a comparable recent one, of the wine.

Cork, it's true, does not last forever. After 20 or 25 years, even the best corks will begin to dry out or decompose. As a result, the once-tight seal will be compromised and the wine will slowly evaporate. Oxygen moving in to fill the void is corrosive and will, over time, spoil the wine.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to recorking. On one hand, many experts believe that it should be done roughly every 25 years, more or less depending on your cellar environment and the apparent condition of the bottle. Many high-end wineries provide the service free of charge – carefully removing the cork, examining the wine and topping it up with a fresh splash from a newer vintage of the same product, then replacing the cork and decorative capsule and even providing an official certificate as proof that the item was not tampered with by counterfeiters. Château Lafite-Rothschild of Bordeaux is one example. So is Penfolds, the Australian winery. Both have in fact hosted occasional pop-up recorking clinics for loyal customers in cities around the globe. Still others, such as Biondi-Santi in Italy, will recork old wines if you bring the bottles to their estates in person.

On the other hand, some producers are opposed to the practice. They believe either that the fragile old wine, once uncorked, will suffer more damage in the process than simply leaving it alone, or that recorking opens the door to fraudsters (how do you truly guarantee that the entire contents of the bottle weren't siphoned off and replaced by something cheaper?). Bordeaux's Château Petrus, for example, ceased recorking in the 1990s. And some people, including a few wine critics, feel that altering a mature wine by topping it up with even a splash of younger juice from the same estate is bogus per se, changing the flavour, even if ever so slightly, to the point where it cannot be considered a true representation of the original wine.

You could, in principle, recork your wines yourself by purchasing a hand-corking machine (available on the Internet) and some fresh corks. But corks come in a variety of diameters and it's hard to tell which size you'll need for your old bottles given that bottle necks can vary slightly in width. And you'd still be stuck with the problem (and additional expense) of sourcing a comparable new vintage of the same wine with which to top up the volume lost to evaporation over all these decades.

To recork or not to recork – that is the question. I'd be more inclined to uncork and drink.

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