The corkscrew

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


The wine world is full of gadgets but the basic method for extracting a cork from a bottle hasn't changed much since the first corkscrew was patented, in 1795, by Reverend Samuell Henshall in England.

The essential part of a corkscrew is called the 'worm' - a pointed helix with five 'turns'. This is attached to a handle that comes in myriad designs: from a simple T-bar made from wood or metal, to ornately carved pieces.

The wing corkscrew (also called a butterfly or angel corkscrew) was invented in 1939. When I see one of these, it is usually in the hands of a wine newbie. It has two levers, one on each side of the worm, both of which rise up as the worm is twisted into the cork. Pushing down on both levers lifts the cork from the bottle. The top of a wing corkscrew quite often houses a bottle cap remover, making this a multi-purpose gadget for the home. At a seaside restaurant recently - one that doesn't serve wine - the waitress used one of these devices to open one of the bottles we had brought with us. She was so unfamiliar with the process that she asked one of us to hold the bottle while she twisted it in.

A more gadgety version is the continuous-pull corkscrew (also known as twisting-pull corkscrew), a two-pieced opener with a really long worm and a holder that sits on the top of a bottle. Continued twisting in a clockwise direction lifts the cork up from the neck and out of the bottle. Too fiddly for words, it's definitely not one of my favoured methods of opening a bottle. There's even an automatic type (Screwpull makes the best ones) that is clamped onto a bottle top and, using a back-and-forth motion, pulls the cork out of the bottle. It's great if you're opening a lot of bottles, but it's too cumbersome for a sommelier to carry around.

One bottle opener that doesn't look anything like a corkscrew is a two-pronged cork puller called a butler's friend or 'ah-so'. This removes a cork without leaving any marks on it. The two prongs, one of which is longer than the other (the long one is inserted first), are worked down the neck of a bottle as far as possible and then pulled out in a twisting motion. The cork can, with practice, be reinserted, by twisting the cork between the prongs back into the neck of the bottle and gently pulling out the prongs. Legend has it that this was invented by a cheeky butler who enjoyed imbibing the contents of his master's cellar, replacing the wine he drank with something else.

More common these days is the sommelier knife, also known as a waiter's friend or wine key. This looks like a pocket knife which folds up - it has an arm to brace against the bottle for leverage and a small hinged knife for removing the foil. Quite often, the arm has a bottle opener on it. This was invented in 1882 by Karl Wienke in Germany, and has changed little since then, with the exception of a Teflon coating covering the worm (around the mid-1980s). Posh versions abound - the ones from Laguiole in France are collector's items, with their hand-carved bone or wooden bodies and signature bumblebee at the hilt.

The process of opening a bottle is part of a sommelier's ritual of service. The bottle is presented to the guest for approval. The foil is cut at the lower lip of the bottle top rather than the upper, to prevent any trace amounts of foil on the bottle falling into a glass. Once the foil is removed, a napkin should be used to wipe clean the top of the bottle to remove any mould and avoid contaminating a glass. The corkscrew is inserted straight down the centre of the cork and turned in a clockwise direction until only half a helix remains. Then the cork is pulled out as gently as possible and presented to the guest on a small plate. Again, the top of the bottle should be wiped clean in case any sediment is present. A small sample is poured to allow the guest to check that it's what they expected. Once approved, the wine is poured for the table (ladies first).

Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier. She is studying with The Court of Master Sommeliers.