So you have decided to have a night out with your significant other or a few friends. You really just want some good company, conversation, great food and a bottle of wine, maybe two.
You are all comfortable sat and orders have been taken. Shortly after, the server or sommelier comes over to the table with your wine order and the delicate dance of presenting and opening the wine bottle begins. The wine bottle is presented, the foil is cut off, the cork is removed and then, they give it to you.
What do you with the wine cork?
Many people somehow believe that when the server or sommelier presents them with the cork, that they must inspect it, smell it or look at it. Other people have no idea what you should do with the cork and end up with a question mark written on their face.
If it is presented correctly, it is set down on the table in front of the person who ordered the wine, or in a small coaster or on a plate in front of the person who ordered the wine. As for what to do with it as a customer, here is a little history about the presentation of the wine cork.
The History of Presenting Wine Corks
Around the time of the early nineteenth century, many wine cellars in restaurants were simple, dirt cellars, humid and cold. As wine aged in these cellars (during a time when many restaurants still aged wine for significant periods), labels would deteriorate.
Sometimes, it was even impossible to read the label. The wine server could have brought any wine to the table and not the one which was ordered. However, this really wasn't as big of an issue as one would think. Because of the inevitable disintegration of the wine label, wineries would stamp the name of the winery on the cork as well as the wine's vintage. This way, there was less chance that a customer could be tricked into having another wine which they did not order.
Today, most wines are not cellared long enough for the wine label to become illegible. In addition, more restaurants control the humidity and temperature of where they store their wines. However, there are still people who look for exceptional vintages and wines which might, in fact, have a label which is hard to read.
Therefore, a labeled cork that will prove that the correct wine has been brought to the table still comes in handy.
Should you still smell the cork?
Well, if you really would like to give the cork a sniff, go ahead. But it is not really going to tell you much. At some point, people got the notion that by smelling the cork, one can tell if the wine is good or bad. This is not the case. (Read on in "Drying Out: How to Tell When a Wine is 'Over the Hill'")
If there are any defects with the wine you ordered, you can smell it and detect it better while it is in your glass. If your sense of smell is better than average or well-trained, you might be able to notice if the wine is corked (TCA) or if there might be Brettanomyces present. However, both of these defects are usually faint and not easily perceived on the cork. (Learn more in "What Corked Means - and Other Tricky Wine Terminology.")
It is better if you swirl your glass with the sample of wine your server has poured to see if there might be any default.
Types of Wine Corks
Stelvin Caps (Screw Caps)
Not all corks are created equal, and some wine bottles do not even have a cork. Most people believe that if a wine is topped with a Stelvin closure (screw cap), that it cannot be corked. That is incorrect. There are wines that can still have the presence of TCA, even if it is a screw cap. Although finding a "corked" wine with a screw cap does occur less.
Then there are the plastic corks, this material is not porous and it will have the inability to absorb any wine. You won't be able to detect if the wine is good or otherwise with this type of cork. (Read "How to Recognize Wine Flaws and Faults.")
The last category of wine closures are actual corks made from cork. However, not all corks are created equally. Some are made up of small cork particles which are glued together. These are made of lower quality cork harvested from the cork tree (Quercus suber). These closures are not meant for a producer's high-end wines. For the consumer, this is an indication of quality. Others are made from one solid piece of cork. Producers reserve these for their high-end, quality wines.
So there you have it. The next time you order a bottle of wine and are given the cork, have a look at it, see that the producer is the same as presented on the bottle. Then maybe keep it as a souvenir and continue on with the welcome conversation.