How to Save Wine from Damaged, Crumbled, or Tainted Cork


I really like screwtop wine stoppers, but there is something special about popping the cork out of a great wine. However, dealing with cork taint and damaged or crumbled corks can be a real dilemma. You can save your wine with the proper steps.

To deal with fragile wine corks, it is important to move the bottle very little to prevent sediments from stirring, use a device such as a Duran cork remover, strain out any crumbles that do fall into the wine, and decant. Tonging is another option for very old corks to save your wine.

SituationDangerSolution
Damaged or Stuck CorkPrecarious situation where damaged cork could get pushed into wine or fall apartUse an "ah-so" cork remover to safely secure and remove cork
Fragile CorkPossibility for total cork failure and crumble if tampered withA Durand cork remover is your best option to safely remove the damaged fragile cork with ease
Crumbled Cork in WineBits of crumbled cork already in wine making the wine unsavory to drinkPour wine through fine-mesh sieve or cocktail strainer to remove cork, then decant wine. You can pour wine back into bottle or serve right out of decanter.

For very old wines like ports, Madeiras, and sherries where the cork is beyond repair, port tonging is a great way to break off the bottleneck of the bottle to reveal the wine within safe for drinking.  Let’s really break down dealing with fragile, old, or broken wine corks and how to save your wine in the process. Furthermore, we will look at cork taint and how you can prevent it.

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How To Remove Damaged Cork from Bottle

How a bottle of wine is opened can sometimes be the “make or break” factor between the cork crumbling into the wine and the cork is removed intact. Try to move the bottle as little as possible during the opening of the wine, to avoid disturbing the cork and the wine. 

Let’s talk about tools used in opening old wine. There are a dizzying array of wine opening solutions available on the market, some as simple as the two-hinged Pulltap corkscrew, and others as involved as the Cork Pop opener or the Rabbit corkscrew. Most of these are great for newer or synthetic stoppers, but older wines and their fragile corks need dedicated tools and a little more care in handling. 

Ah-so openers, or butlers’ friends, were created exactly for this reason; the device features two prongs that fit around the cork, inside the lip of the bottle. By shimmying in the cork and then pulling out the whole thing in one fell swoop, using an ah-so reduces the chances that an old, fragile cork will snap or crumble, compared to a more invasive corkscrew. This is a great ah-so bottle opener worth the small investment available on Amazon.

Taking things one step further, the Durand is a specialized corkscrew and ah-so combination device that all but guarantees that the cork will be pulled out all in one piece. It is universally recognized as a crucial piece in a serious sommelier’s set of tools. Although it’s not cheap compared to other wine openers, for a wine collector who loves aged wine, this is a solid investment. Click here to check out the current pricing on Amazon.

The corkscrew component holds the stopper in place in between the two prongs of the ah-so, and the entire cork is pulled out in one piece. For a wine with a cork that is still solid but just pushed down into the bottle’s neck, the Durand or a standard ah-so is a great way to ease out the stopper and open the bottle. 

In extreme cases, even the most ideal storage conditions and the most perfect use of the Durand won’t prevent a cork from crumbling into the wine. Great fortified wines such as ports, Madeiras, and sherries can last centuries, and the corks in these bottles might disintegrate at the lightest touch.

In these rare cases, the entire neck of the bottle is snapped off in a dramatic (but safe!) process called tonging; check out this video to watch a fascinating demonstration by Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson!

Crumbled Cork & Wine

Remove Crumbled Cork from Wine

Rescuing a wine full of cork crumble is simple. All you need is a decanter and a filter of some sort. Just pour the wine into the decanter through the filter. If you wish, you can rinse out your bottle and pour the wine back into the bottle. However, that’s entirely optional and it’s completely appropriate to serve wine directly out of a decanter.

Ideally, the finer the grain of the filter, the better. If a bottle is old enough to have a fragile cork, it’s most likely also old enough to have some fine sediment buildup in the wine itself. This can mean tartrate crystals for a white wine, or tannin buildup for a red wine, both harmless particles but best filtered for maximum enjoyment.

As older wines can be sensitive to extra aeration (and since the wine is being poured into a decanter anyway), I advise against using a filter that double functions as an aerator. Too much oxygen can kill the lovely aromatics of a perfectly cellar-aged wine. 

Instead, opt for a fine-mesh sieve, a cocktail strainer, or a high-quality cheesecloth draped loosely over the opening of the decanter. This should catch all of the broken cork pieces in the wine, as well as all of the rougher sediment particles. If the wine is quite old, our recommendation then is to allow the wine to sit for a while undisturbed.

Finer sediment particles form and settle out to the bottom of the bottle during aging, and the filter-decanting process has “kicked up the dust,” so to speak. Once the fine sediment has settled to the bottom again, the wine should be beautifully clear of any particles, showing its age perfectly, and ready to be enjoyed!

Does Crumbled Cork Ruin Wine?

Crumbled cork bits floating in wine can be problematic, but shouldn’t affect the flavor or essence of wine as long as you properly screen and decant the wine to remove all foreign objects and sediments. You can safely pour the wine back into the cleaned out bottle if you’d like or serve it right from the decanter.

Does Cork Taint Ruin Wine?

Is the wine still good to drink with crumbled corks? We hear so often about “cork taint,” the tragic wine flaw that irreparably destroys lovely vinous aromas and replaces them with smells of wet dog, damp basement, and moldy cardboard. Wouldn’t the broken cork pieces falling into the wine surely taint the wine?

Thankfully, the answer is no. The reasons for this are twofold: one is that the compounds that cause cork taint are measured in minuscule doses, and the other is that the percentage of wines with corks that are flawed in the first place are thankfully low. 

The two main compounds responsible for corked wine are created when a particular kind of fungus (which happens to sometimes be present in cork bark) comes into contact with chlorinated phenolic compounds, a type of antimicrobial agent used in wood product processing.

The human nose is able to detect some of the compounds. Since the nose is partially responsible for taste, this means that a wine is going to smell and taste corked with even the slightest presence of these compounds in the wine.

If a bottle of wine is corked, it’s going to be corked no matter what you do. Even if none of the wine physically comes into contact with the cork during your storage, even if the cork is removed all in one piece, just having the tainted cork in the bottle as the stopper is enough to cork the wine. 

The good news is that the percentage of wines with tainted corks is decreasing year after year. As mentioned before, alternative wine closures are steadily becoming more and more popular. As one of their main selling points, these cork alternatives often boast the fact that they do not include organic material that can become tainted.

With their growing market share, the cork industry and their business partners are feeling mounting market pressure to improve their practices. Although a corked wine is a corked wine, we’re looking at a bright future in which the production of any corked wine could be a thing of the past entirely.

Ultimately, the best and final way to determine whether a wine is still good is simply to try some for yourself! At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is your enjoyment; pour some into the glass and be your own expert.

How to Prevent Cork Damage & Rot

The vast majority of wine storage solutions feature horizontal slots for wine bottles. Beyond aesthetics and space conservation reasons, the bottles are stored this way for long-term aging because it keeps the wine in contact with the cork, providing moisture to the cork material.

If the bottle of wine is kept standing up for all the years it sits in your cellar, the cork starts to dry out and turn brittle. This increases the chances that the cork will crumble into the wine upon opening. 

Another major factor in cork condition is the temperature in storage. The ideal cellar temperature is cited as 55°F (12.77°C). Any hotter than 65°F (18.33°C), and your wine collection will begin to slowly take on damage. Heat damage not only negatively impacts the character of wine, it also changes the character of the cork, drying out the material, making it brittle, and changing the cellular structure of the bark.

The third factor in cork condition is humidity, an oft-overlooked aspect in wine cellars and storage solutions. The acceptable range for long-term wine aging in a cellar is said to be 50% to 70%, with the ideal being 60%. Too humid, and the cellar develops mold and rot.

Too dry, and the corks begin to dry out, taking damage and developing cracks throughout its cell structure. However, keeping the wine in ideal storage conditions isn’t a perfect failsafe. For all of its great attributes, and even after all precautions have been taken, natural cork bark just isn’t impermeable to time and age.

Simply put, the older the cork, the more delicate it is. A few wine estates, like Penfolds in Australia, offer re-corking services for older bottlings whose corks may not be in great shape anymore.

However, the majority of the wines in your collection likely does not have such a guarantee. Given that some wines, like great German Rieslings and great Bordeaux reds, seem next to immortal, many collectors find that the cork doesn’t stand the test of time as easily as the wine inside the bottle. 

Ahry Ko

Ahry Ko is a Certified Sommelier hailing from Atlanta, Georgia. She is passionate about the world of beverages, with a strong focus on fine wine, craft beer, and spirits. She studied political science at Emory University, but fell in love with wine and hasn’t looked back since. When she isn’t attending tastings, writing articles, or studying for wine exams, you can find her in the kitchen baking some excessively complicated pastry, or playing with her dog Lily.

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