Fine Wine

Why the secret to enjoying wine starts with a £6.95 corkscrew

Victoria Wood once joked that she didn’t get caravanning. “I don’t understand people who can only have a relaxed holiday if they’re accompanied at all times by their own washing-up brush.” I often think of this line as I slip my own corkscrew out of my handbag at other people’s houses. The reason for carrying it is not that my corkscrew is so special; it’s not. It’s that, so often, other people’s corkscrews are pretty dreadful. And I prefer to spare myself first the long ferret through someone else’s drawers, then the inevitable wrestle with a corkscrew that is only just capable of doing the job.

Why do so many kitchens sport the latest in dishwasher drawers and boiling water taps and harbour a terrible corkscrew? I blame the obsession with gadgets and in particular with “gifting” gadgets that means nothing is ever allowed to be simple. In the same way that so many (inexplicably, to me) prefer to programme their watch to turn on an appliance from the next room (if the Wi-Fi is working) than to perform the simple task of flicking a switch, so, over the years, corkscrews have become way more elaborate than is necessary. We have had winged corkscrews, fish corkscrews, the gigantic rabbit-head-shaped contraptions that take up unnecessary space in already cluttered drawers, as well as a menagerie of other novelty designs. Enough. A lot of bottles are going to be opened over the next few weeks. What sort of corkscrew is the best?

“If you can’t get it in your pocket it’s not worth having,” says Daniel Primack, a most particular wine accessories expert who runs a company called Winerackd. Agreed. The best corkscrews are the very compact ones, sometimes called waiters’ corkscrews, that sommeliers and bartenders carry in their apron pockets and which are made by companies like Waiter’s Friend and Pulltap’s. These work efficiently, swiftly and with minimal fuss. They come with a small retractable blade that can be used for cutting the capsule around the cork (as well as for opening boxes of wine). You need to look for a “double-lever” version to get the most power throughout the pull and to avoid the bottle-between-knees situation with tricky corks, but that’s as fancy as things need to get. I have several rattling around, most of which are branded versions. I like the Berry Bros & Rudd Double-Lever Corkscrew (BB&R, £5.50) but there are lots of good ones out there. Just remember, “double-lever” is an essential property.

If you’re thinking, “Is that all? Can I not still reasonably spend a small fortune on a superior model?” then I can still help. At a London tasting recently I overheard Ronan Sayburn, a Godfather among sommeliers, who back in the day worked at the Gordon Ramsay restaurants and is now head of wine at the wine club 67 Pall Mall, being teased about his “special corkscrew”. I asked about it. “I use the Rolls-Royce of corkscrews, the Code 38 P-type Titanium, hand-engineered in Australia. Very expensive but they last a lifetime!” said Sayburn. When he says “very expensive”, he means it: the Code 38 P-type Titanium costs £695 (no decimal point missing). It is currently out of stock on the website of importer winerackd.uk, though other Code 38 models are available, the cheapest of which is the P-Type Pro at £295. Sayburn explains why he is so keen on his version: “It’s great because of the worm. It’s Teflon-coated and slides through corks as if through butter. There’s a great angle/fulcrum on the lever, so taking corks out is easy. The blade is very easy to open one-handed by flicking it open with the thumb. It’s solid and sturdy. And while all corkscrews get loose and floppy after a while, this one has screws so you can tighten the moving parts yourself.”

Sayburn opens a lot of bottles. To most others, the cost of a Code 38 is not likely to be justifiable. But there is one other type of corkscrew or, rather, cork remover, that could be worth having in your arsenal. The Durand is a device that was designed by American wine collector Mark Taylor to make it possible to remove fragile corks from bottles without bits of cork crumbling into the wine. It’s useful for those who regularly open older bottles of wine whose corks might be dried out or crumbly and difficult to extract whole using an ordinary corkscrew. The Durand consists of a helix, like a normal corkscrew, and two blades which you slide between cork and bottle and which act to hold the cork together as you make the extraction.

How do you know when you might have a fragile cork? A quick visual inspection after removing the capsule might give the game away. Otherwise, “If you go in with a waiter’s friend and only half the cork comes out, or you inch out the first 3mm or 4mm and the cork starts to fall apart, then you can switch to the Durand,” advises Primack. Yes, he sells it (Winerackd, £140) but he’s not the only one. The Durand is available from eurocave.co.uk (£140); hedonism.co.uk (£137); and Amazon (£144.26). Primack says: “It’s a mistake to pigeonhole it in the ‘very old fine wine’ category; you can get crumbly corks on cheaper bottles too. Though it’s obviously not a cheap product so if you’re spending a fiver on a bottle of wine then perhaps it’s not the right tool.” Quite right. At this point, what you would need would be a tea-strainer. You probably already have one of those already.

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