There’s a moment that comes along early in every sommelier’s career that I like to call the Old Bottle Test. It’s that first time you’re handed a wine that may be twice your age or older. How will you perform under the pressure of cracking its seal neatly – making sure not one drop of the precious liquid will be wasted under a crumbling cascade of cork remnants? If you’re opening it tableside, how will you keep your professional cool? How can you make it look as though you’re as unfazed by the challenge of a 1947 Cheval Blanc as you are by last year’s rosé? Luckily, there are some helpful tools we can keep in our proverbial fanny packs and a few simple guidelines for stress-free service. Once you’ve seen what the bottle is, asking yourself the following questions should help you determine how to proceed.
How old is it?
If a bottle of wine has been properly stored (i.e. in a cool, dark, humid place), at twenty years of age, it should be no problem to open with your regular wine key. If you know the bottle’s storage history and feel comfortable digging right in, then (gently) go for it! If the bottle has been brought by someone as corkage, and you’re opening it at the guest’s request, ask if they’ve brought it from their cellar. Hope that the cork isn’t dried out from heat, fused to the neck of the bottle, or disturbed by aggressive handling. As a fail-safe, use one of the other tools mentioned below to remove the cork intact. If the wine is significantly older than twenty years, you should probably use one of them anyway. Even if the ah-so pushes the cork into the bottle rather than gripping it from the sides to retrieve it, one full-fledged cork bobbing in the wine beats the heck out of the thousands of tiny cork particles that could wind up in there if your wine key’s worm rips it to shreds.
Has the bottle been standing up or lying down?
Old bottles more often than not throw sediment. “Throwing sediment” refers to the natural precipitation of the tannin-anthocyanin complexes that contribute to a red wine’s color and structure. Over time, some may grow too large or heavy to stay in solution, so they will fall to the bottom of the bottle. Not only is it completely normal and in no way affects the wine’s quality, it is a sign that the wine has been aging gracefully and wasn’t overly or harshly processed prior to bottling. But what’s unpleasant is getting a mouthful of the gritty stuff, which is what will happen if you shake or move the bottle, thereby redistributing the solids. If the bottle has been lying horizontally in a cellar, and you know far enough in advance when you’re going to open it, it’s typically a good idea to stand it upright to allow the sediment that had collected on the side to settle to the bottom to allow for ease of decanting or pouring. Just be careful as you approach the end of the wine. The murkier part – the “dregs” – can either be left and discarded or filtered through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth (see below) to obtain every last drop of drinkable wine. If the wine has been lying horizontally up until the moment of opening, a wine cradle is a handy holder that will allow you to open and pour from the bottle as close to its original position as possible, without disturbing the blanket of sediment.
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Is decanting an option?
Decanting a bottle is a great way to separate a wine from the aforementioned sediment. Simply stop transferring the liquid into the decanter once you see the dregs nearing the neck of the bottle. Most folks hold a candle underneath the neck to allow a clearer view of the solids. If you’re at home and aesthetics don’t play a role, your iPhone’s flashlight works pretty well. Bordeaux blends, Syrah, and anything hearty can typically withstand a decant. But I’d think twice about decanting 50 year-old Burgundy. Although helpful at removing sediment, decanting also exposes the wine to air. That may be a good thing for a young wine described as “tight”. It’s almost like a fast-forward button, getting your wine to a more enjoyable place quicker. But for a wine of an already delicate nature, you may lose some of its prettiest moments in that exposure.
Do I have the right tools?
To be prepared for any bottle that comes your way, it’s a good idea to have an ah-so at the ready. An ah-so is that two-pronged cork extraction device that looks like almost like a large set of tweezers with a handle on top. It’s the tool of choice for older corks that may break apart if penetrated by a wine key. A simple search on YouTube will pull up many a tutorial on how to use the ah-so, but the concept is simple: insert the prongs between the cork and the neck of the bottle, longer prong first, and gently wiggle or rock the device back and forth until it is far enough down to fully grip the cork. Twist and pull on the way up to remove. Although the ah-so has a high success rate for older bottles, there will always be stubborn corks that break or seem to disintegrate on contact. A relative newcomer to the cork-removal scene – the Durand – has somehow managed to take all of the risk out of uncorking. It’s basically a combo twist & pull corkscrew plus ah-so that allows you to stabilize the cork while working the ah-so blades down the sides. No more pushing the cork in! And if you want the full arsenal, add to the list port tongs and either a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. The benefit of port tongs is that they remove the full section of the bottleneck that encases the cork, but they require a full set-up, including a flame to bring the tongs to red-hot. They certainly make for a good show but are in no way practical for everyday use. Finally, the strainer or cheesecloth will take the headache out of opening a bottle that has had the sediment disturbed, acting as an à la minute filtration system during decanting.