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Know How

How to Open Any Wine Bottle With Flair

Wax seals, crumbly corks, or sparkling wine bottles are no problem

Chasity Cooper By September 29, 2021
illustration of waiters opening wine bottles
Illustration by Chanelle Nibbelink.

Subtle hiss? Jovial pop? The evocative sounds associated with opening a wine bottle involve  a certain necessary finesse and technique. It can be a little daunting to open a bottle beyond the realm of the user-friendly screwcap. Frequently asked questions may include:

Do I need to use a special type of corkscrew? Can I use one of those automatic devices that I bought from Target? Why can’t I twist off the cork on a bottle of bubbles?

Enjoying a bottle of wine­, no matter the occasion, doesn’t take a lot of muscle power. It does, however, help to have a little knowledge in order to open it with ease. Particularly when a curve ball is thrown your way in the form of wax seals, a bottle of bubbly, or a well-aged cellar treasure. To combat any anxiety, three sommeliers share their experiences opening these types of bottles and offer tips on how to do so. 

Wax on, wax off?

The most intimidating type of wine bottle to open? One with a colorful, stylish wax seal. 

Ella Raymont, lead sommelier at Bishop’s Lodge, Auberge Resorts Collection in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says opening a bottle with a wax seal is easier than people think. “When I first started as a floor sommelier,” she recalls, “I made the mistake of standing in front of a table and awkwardly trying to chip away at the wax top so that I could access the cork.” 

After several tries, Raymont excused herself from the table and ran to her colleagues for help. “My wonderful boss at the time, Jordyn, giggled and said, ‘Ella, just drill through the wax with the corkscrew.’ Wax tops are so elegant and beautiful, and I now make it a fun tableside moment by warming the top of the wax with my hand so it softens just a bit.”

Popping bottles versus gentle hiss

There are two over-the-top and potentially dangerous routes to opening a bottle of sparkling wine. Step into the locker room of any just-victorious World Series team and there’s a celebration with popping corks and sparkling wine spraying from profusely shaken bottles. A less chaotic, yet still festive, option is to saber a bottle with a knife, small sword, or even the foot of a wine glass: chill the bottle, hold it from the bottom at an angle, scrape the utensil up from the glass to the bottom of the cork and stand clear. The ultimate goal, however, is for the bottle to emit a nearly inaudible hiss.

Washington, D.C.-based sommelier and beverage consultant, Kayla Mensah, says sparkling wines are her favorite to open. “The first thing I do is get my bottle cold sparkling wine is less volatile at lower temperatures,” Mensah says. 

To start, make sure your bottle of sparkling is well-chilled and “let it come to serving temperature, around 45 degrees Fahrenheit, after it is opened.” Mensah also recommends being cautious of any vibration or shaking of the bottle. “Even walking a couple of blocks to a friend’s house is enough to cause a Champagne shower.” While undoing the cage, she keeps her thumb on the top of the cork and points it away from herself and others to avoid any flying cork injuries. With her other hand, she grips the bottom of the bottle and twists it until the cork comes out of the bottle. “Usually, the build-up of pressure in the bottle will naturally push the cork up,” she says, “but to control the process I like to respond with slightly less than equal pressure to avoid any loud noises or explosions.”

That’s the way the cork crumbles

When opening an older bottle, always keep an eye out for cork that might have broken off into the wine. Certified sommelier and author, Jaton Gunter, says while a little cork doesn’t kill the wine, he has had his share of crumbles. “When dealing with an older cork, it’s important to double-pour. First, grab a mesh filter and pour the wine into a decanter,” he says. “Then, rinse out the filter and use the same filter to pour back into the bottle. Finally, clean the decanter and pour the wine back into the decanter. It may seem like a lot of steps, but patience is key.” 

One thing to keep in mind, whatever the wine? “Don’t be intimidated by opening a bottle!” says Mensah. “Good juice and good company are way more important than the pomp and circumstance of opening a bottle.”