Romancing the Cork: Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

Categories: Wine Time

occhipinti corks.jpg
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
If corks can cause wine flaws, why do winemakers still use them?
According to the Oxford Companion to Wine (edited by Master of Wine Jancis Robinson), "around 5 percent of all wines sealed under cork display a musty taint."

If one in every 20 bottles of wine is affected by the use of cork -- the bark of the cork tree, in other words, living, breathing organic matter -- why do winemakers still use them to seal the bottle? Add to this mix the fact that for many people pulling the cork out of a bottle can prove challenging and the case for alternative stoppers grows increasingly compelling.

The issue of cork taint becomes even more complicated when you consider that every person has a different level of sensitivity to cork taint. My wife Tracie P and I once arrived late to a dinner at a high-end restaurant hosted by some of the top managers of one our state's biggest fine wine distributors. The hosts and other guests had already begun drinking a red wine (a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo) and when we were poured a glass, my wife smelled the wine, looked up, and said "it's corked." No one at the table had noticed, but once she had pointed it out, it became apparent to everyone. Ask any serious wine professional: She or he will be able to tell you a similar story.

Sometimes cork taint can be overwhelmingly apparent. As Houston wine blogger Tom Gutting points out in this excellent post on wine flaws, "it makes the wine smell musty or like damp, moldy cardboard."

But cork taint can also be extremely subtle. As the editors of the Oxford Companion to Wine observe, "it suppresses fruit and shortens the length of finish of the wine. In its most subtle form, cork taint has a slight dulling effect on the bouquet and palate."

While the tell-tale odor of must, mold, or wet cardboard (from the wine, not the cork) reveals that the wine is clearly affected by cork taint, it's the absence of fruit aroma and fruit flavor that makes a wine "corked" or "corky" (as we say in wine parlance). In other words, a wine can be corked even if it doesn't smell like moldy or musty cork or wet cardboard.

Beyond my calling Mrs. B's Turkey Chili "chili" here at Wine Time, nothing has caused more controversy than our ongoing discussion of cork. And I am already bracing for the heated reaction to my next statement.

You determine whether or not a wine is corked by smelling it: If your olfactory does not reveal the presence of fruit aroma, the wine is corked (even if it doesn't smell like cork taint). TCA (trichloroanisole) is just one cause of corkiness. Exposure to extreme temperatures (cold and hot) can lead to corkiness. Unintended oxidation (due to a desiccated cork, for example) can lead to corkiness as well. The bottom line: Whether at home or in a restaurant, when you pour or are poured the first taste of wine, you should be able to determine its fitness solely by examining the color and the aroma. (We'll discuss how to send back or return a wine in an upcoming post.)

So why do winemakers still use cork to seal their wines? Even beyond the nostalgia and romance, cork remains the best stopper for certain wines -- although not all wines. The reason for the cork's dogged survival will be the topic of the next installment in this series.

Drink something great this week and let us know about it in the comment section!



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12 comments
types of wines
types of wines

 Main dish wines are typically either white wines or red wines. Though both work well with main courses, each works better with different dishes. Typically, white wines go best with fowl, white meats, and sea food. They can range from being very sweet to somewhat dry, and are best served chilled.

types of wines
types of wines

 Though there are many different ways in which the types of wine can be classified, one of the most common ways is by the portion of the meal with which it was intended to be served. This method of categorization is a no-brainer and ensures that you will be able to pick a type of wine for every occasion.

ramon vancells
ramon vancells

I think that for judge  the wine bottles with unwanted taste, also it have of evaluate  the circumstances that the wines  live after it are  out of the wineries, and until the consumer open the bottle, conditions of transport, in the storage, the time that  wine  remain in the bottle. etc. The use of corks in the wine is not a question of expensive or cheap corks if not the question is the type of wine and the forecast times that the wine will remain in the bottle and in what conditions. If understand this questions  after we can discuss if all the percentatges of bottles with unwanted taste are due to the corks.

Rewsf
Rewsf

the percentage of wine corked is often related to the price of the bottle - because wineries buy cheaper cork for cheaper wines - hence you see the aggloms, twin disc, and other particle corks at the lower end of price. One wine scientist says that 'technical' corks as they're called, just spread the tca out into the entire cork. A really expensive bottle of wine - say a cult wine in Napa Valley will pay as much as $5 dollars for one cork vs. $0.05 cents for a cheap bottle of wine. The expensive cork is picked and sorted and tested to have the least chance of TCA where as the 5 cent cork might have 10-15% of TCA - at least a bottle per case.

Rewsf
Rewsf

Megan - you won't find cork taint in a bottle with a screw cap. as far as that wine being good or bad is up to the producer. However, screw cap wines are subject to getting sulphide redux which can dumb down the fruit in the wine - I find it becomes just a dull wine - fruitless vs. the flavors you get from TCA - in natural cork. I personally believe screw cap is good for higher acid whites - but I have had a few good reds and many fruitless - reduced wines.

ramon vancells
ramon vancells

When you speak of cork i think that will be necessary to know  the type of cork that is in the bottle. Is not the same an agglomerate cork manufactured from granulated cork that a natural cork manufactured from a selected cork  bark. The agglomerated cork for some wines can be  cause unwated tastes.

Megan
Megan

What percentage of wine in total cork (i.e., x out of y wines I open in a year end up corked)?  Also, does it usually affect older or newer vintages, or is it a universal problem (is it a product of the storage in general, or can an entire batch cork faster because of unforeseen circumstances from the vineyard)?  I am speaking more to the ideally stored wine, one that has not been exposed to extreme temperatures, has a good cork, etc.

If you can't answer, no worries.  I'm just curious.

Rewsf
Rewsf

I'm not sure what you're trying to say ramon? it's def a question of cheap corks and how they're made. we're not discussing wines that are 10 years old or beyond their time. we are talking specifically about TCA or corked wines.

Ross Mckay
Ross Mckay

You can get a mould under screw caps, it's rare but it happens.  That being said, there is a much, much higher percentage than 5%, the older the wine is.  I've almost stopped buying older high quality wines under cork, it's simply not worth the aggravation.  Luckily most decent Australian wines are now under screwcap.

Cork has no place in white wines, it's lunacy

Jeremy Parzen
Jeremy Parzen

great point, Ramon. Winemakers have been experimenting with different types of stoppers and they're finding that there are a lot of challenges... I'll devote an upcoming post to alternative stoppers... thanks for the insights!

Jeremy Parzen
Jeremy Parzen

Megan, the Oxford Companion to Wine editors say about 1 in every 20 bottles is affected. Some people think it's up to 1 in 8 bottles. Poor storage can sometimes amplify taint while proper storage can help to contain it... we'll be posting more on corks and cork issues in coming days... thanks for reading!

Megan
Megan

So I shouldn't cellar the $6 bottle of pinot noir with the screw cap I just bought at the store?  :P  (I'm not expecting quality.  I just want it to be somewhat drinkable and be used for cooking.)

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