Corking wine bottles is a relatively straightforward process, yet some professional vintners agonize for weeks, months or even years over the proper corks to use and the proper way to insert them into the bottles.
That's because without refined corking technique and adherence to detail, the wine's finished notes cannot adequately mature and the subtlety of the vintage will disappear. Figuring out how to cork wine bottles separates an inexperienced vineyard wizard from an expert.
For home vintners, corking is less high-stakes, but it can still tremendously impact the final version of your wine. Learning how to cork wine bottles at home requires mastery of a few easy skills, rapt attention to the smallest detail, and perfect preparation and disinfection of your materials.
The corking process begins with your choice of materials, and the most important material in the corking process is—the cork! Corks are made from the bark of the Quercus Suber oak, known colloquially as the "cork oak". Generally, more expensive corks are denser, because higher density corks create a tighter seal on the bottle. This tight seal diminishes oxidation and allows the wine to last longer on the shelf.
Most homemade wines do not have lengthy shelf lives, so it might be a waste of money to invest in expensive corks that guarantee the wine a 3 to 10 year shelf life. For home-based winemakers, agglomerated corks or colmated corks are both excellent choices. Agglomerated corks are fashioned from chipped cork pieces that are then glued together with a polyurethane glue, whereas colmated corks are naturally cut from cork bark and then filled with a 50-50 glue and cork solution. These corks are well-suited for wines that will not be consumed for 6 to 18 months.
For the more discerning or experienced home vintner, altec corks may be a better choice. These corks are made from heavily processed cork particles that are bound together with a polyurethane resin. The processing removes many of the impurities that lead to uneven density in more inexpensive corks. These corks are popular with home-based operators because they seal well, they are easily corked by hand, and they keep wine fresh and pure for between 5 and 10 years.
There are hundreds of different specialty corks sold by wine and beer-making suppliers around the world. Straight corks, tapered corks, T-corks—the list goes on and on. At the end of the day, only you know which cork is appropriate for your winemaking operation. Do some cork research and compare prices between suppliers to get a good deal on the best corks for homemade wine for you.
There is extensive debate in the home winemaking community about cork preparation.
Professional vintners and large commercial operations do not treat their corks at all before corking the bottles because they simply purchase vacuum-sealed corks and transfer them directly into massive bottling machines. Smaller home operations usually need to treat their corks by either boiling, steaming or rinsing before they use them.
The reason that corks must be prepared is that they are initially very stiff. Corks need to be softened, and there are several ways to do this:
The best way to test which method works for you is to try all of them! Utilize a different method for each small batch until you find a way that works for you. If the corks that you've bought seem amply soft and well lubricated, don't even bother with these softening procedures: simply rinse the corks with sanitized water and insert them into the bottles.
Learning how to cork a wine bottle is actually deceptively simple.
First, make sure that you have the right gear. Corkers come in many different shapes and sizes: floor corkers, compression corkers, single lever corkers, double lever corkers, and more. Small, handheld corkers can be bought cheaply from any wine production supply store, and even many general hardware and home supply stores carry them. Here is a short video demonstrating the basic use of one of these small-scale corkers.
After inserting the cork into the neck of the wine bottle, make sure to leave the bottles standing upright for a period of two days to a week (again, winemakers disagree strongly on this topic!) This grace period allows the cork to expand against the sides of the bottle, creating a stronger seal.
Although the corking process is relatively quick and simple, many winemakers do not consider the process complete until PVC capsules are added to the bottle.
These shrink caps go over the cork and the top part of the neck and give the bottle a professional look. The caps are very cheap to purchase, and even easier to attach to the bottle: simply place the cap over the top of the bottle and expose the cap to direct heat. Some vintners submerge the cap into a pot of boiling water, while others use heat from a kettle or even a hairdryer.
The entire process only takes a few seconds, after which the caps are perfectly shrink-wrapped onto the top of the bottle. Here is a brief video that does an excellent job of recreating the boiling water method.
Learning how to cork a wine bottle means learning to pay attention to the seemingly minor details, and understanding that these minor details can have a major effect on your finished product.
Learning how to cork wine bottles by hand is an essential skill for vintners who are either unwilling to purchase a corker or lack the resources to find one. Although corking by hand is fairly easy as well, bottles without proper straight corks have shorter shelf lives and will not age as completely (in taste or time) as corked wines will.
Both T-corks and mushroom corks can be inserted by hand. The same cork preparation process applies to these corks, and even more liquid lubricant may be needed because of the lack of corking machinery.
The Zork corking company also markets a peel and reseal closure device that functions effectively as a corking mechanism. Although the Zork product is not marketed as a corking replacement, it can certainly be used as one in a pinch. Every resourceful vintner should know how to cork wine bottles without a corker, just in case their corker breaks in the middle of a batch.
There are certain aspects of the process, such as preparation and sterilization, that cannot be skipped, but the rest of the process is very malleable. Winemakers are constantly figuring out new ways to insert corks, trying out new cork materials, and testing new ways to soften and sanitize corks. Learning how to cork a wine bottle is a fluid process, and a savvy vintner is never finished with his or her wine education!
As an assistant D.A. in a small city, Tim Packard always drank whiskey whenever he was out to dinner with clients, until an Italian mobster introduced him to a classic Valpolicella. One mouthful of the latest vintage, round with the flavor of cherries and earth, and he never again allowed friends to order the second-best wine.