Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on January 4, 2024.
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We've all been there- you go to open a bottle of wine, put the corkscrew in, pull, and only part of the cork comes out. You broke the cork!
Don't panic- it happens to the best of us.
While corks are inherently elastic, they are not perfect, and there are many reasons for why a cork could break from being old, improper use of a corkscrew, or simply a poorly cut cork!
So in this one, we thought we'd take a look at why corks often break and what you can do about it to still enjoy that bottle of wine!
How Does a Cork Break When Opening Wine?
Corks break when opening wine for a variety of reasons, but it all stems to an outside factor (your corkscrew) imparting more force than the cork's elasticity can tolerate.
In most cases, cork is incredibly resilient and allows the corkscrew to pass through easily. You twist the corkscrew in, pull the cork out, and it is removed in one solid piece. But sometimes the cork could be less-than-ideal either due to its formation, age, or how you used the corkscrew outright, and it breaks.
This could be a break at the end of the cork when the corkscrew pops through the other side, at the side if you didn't put in the corkscrew straight, or a clean break in the middle if the corkscrew didn't go in far enough or if the cork was too fragile for some external factor (often age- corks 10 years and older can break quite easily).
As such, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation as to why a cork could break. We only list these as you should take a moment to look at how your cork broke to see if you can figure out an explanation to avoid having it happen again in a future bottle (say, with an improved opening technique).
So, what should you do if you have a broken cork? We have a process for that.
What to Do if Your Cork Breaks
Ultimately, there are two problems you'll likely have to deal with if your cork breaks when opening a bottle of wine.
First, you'll likely have a small piece of the cork still stuck in the bottle that needs to be removed.
Second, depending on how the cork broke, the odds are good that pieces will fall into the wine and need to be filtered out before drinking.
The first case will need to be dealt with based on how exactly the cork broke.
If you only put the corkscrew about 10% into the cork by accident and pulled off the top, you may get away with putting the corkscrew back in, ensuring it goes all the way through, and pulling the remaining bit out. We've had good luck trying this as long as more than 50-60% of the cork is still in the bottle after a break and it isn't an old bottle of wine- anything smaller than half may not have enough grip on the cork to easily come out.
If the remaining bit of cork is small, well under 50%, you may want to try a different kind of opener if you have one (a two-prong wine opener, for example- more on that below) or see if you can use something small to push the cork into the wine itself and then move on to the next case.
The second case is a challenge because cork floats in wine, and any bits of broken cork can wind their way into a glass which is texturally unpleasant to say the least.
As such, decanting wine with broken cork in it is not a solution- the goal of decanting is for sediment to sink to the bottom in addition to aerating. Instead, we need to filter the wine.
In our experience, the best way to filter wine without losing any of the wine in the process is by using a fine mesh strainer like you would use in cooking or when making cocktails. We have several of these strainers on hand of various sizes, and even a fine mesh tea strainer would work well insofar as you are careful when pouring.
Simply pour the wine through a fine filter, catch the liquid in a wine glass or serving vessel, and odds are good you will remove the vast majority of any broken cork pieces. (If you do not have a fine mesh strainer, buy one to have on hand- they're quite versatile in the kitchen and can be quite affordable).
But what if you don't have a fine mesh strainer on hand? There are a number of other options here for an ad hoc filter including pouring through a few layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter into a separate vessel. If you have a funnel, lining that with the cloth or filter could be a good idea, too.
The reason we treat this method as secondary over using a fine mesh strainer is simply that anything that is cloth or fabric will also have absorbent properties and you will naturally lose some wine when filtering through the medium- not our favorite!
Is Wine Still Good if a Cork Breaks?
Now, you may be thinking, can you still drink wine if the cork breaks? The answer, as you can imagine since we wrote an entire process about removing cork, is yes- in most all cases, at least.
Ultimately, drinking a wine that had its cork fall into it, and even ingesting some small pieces of cork, is perfectly safe. It isn't pleasant, but you and the wine are generally going to be fine.
The only time where a broken cork could be a problem is if there was something fundamentally wrong with the cork at the time of bottling. For example, if the cork was damaged to the point that it let in excessive oxygen, the wine could have oxidized and may be spoiled.
But to know for sure you simply will have to try the wine after the cork is removed. In our experience at least, despite having many broken corks over the years, we've never had a bottle of wine that became faulty because of the cork- so the odds are good that your wine should not be impacted if the cork breaks. It is truly just a physical change in most cases!
Why You Should Have a Two-Prong Wine Opener
Earlier in this article, we mentioned that a two-prong wine opener (sometimes called an Ah So) could be another good tool to have on hand.
This one is a bit of a niche wine opener, we will admit, but it is generally recommended to use on bottles of wine ten years and older for one simple reason- they don't puncture the cork.
The way this corkscrew type works is simple- the two prongs insert themselves between the outside of the cork and the glass of the bottle. This causes the cork to compact, and a solid twist dislodges it and allows for the cork to be removed in one solid piece.
Two-prong wine openers are the go-to for old bottles of wine because the reduced elasticity in old corks makes them prone to breaking. Not puncturing the cork significantly reduces the chances your cork will break, and makes opening old wine a bit easier and more reliable (admittedly, this one has a bit of a learning curve).
Another reason having one of these on hand is ideal is because if your cork breaks with a conventional wine opener, if a sufficient amount of the cork is left a two-prong opener may still be able to get around the remaining bits and pull it out without falling into the bottle. This one can be hit or miss, but if your only alternative is to pop the cork through into the wine anyway, it is worth a shot.
- Note: In our experience, two-prong wine openers sometimes cut into the cork on the sides when opening- especially in older bottles. This generally causes some bits of cork to fall into the wine anyway. As such, you may still need to strain through a fine mesh filter in some instances here- it isn't foolproof. We normally strain old wine before putting it in a decanter anyway, but it is just something to be aware of.
- Likewise, two-prong wine openers are much harder to use on young corks as they do not have as much give at the glass interface. Truly, these are best for older wine only outside of instances of a broken cork.
So while you may be a bit panicked if cork broke in your bottle, don't worry- you have many ways to still open and enjoy the bottle!
What is your preferred way of dealing with a broken cork in a wine bottle? Comment below to share!
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