Wine Time: Moldy Cork (Is Actually a Good Sign)

Categories: Wine Time

moldy cork.jpg
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
A moldy cork is a sign that the wine has been stored properly.
Have you ever removed the top of the capsule from a bottle of wine to find mold on the top of the cork (as in the photo above)?

It happened to me over the Christmas break when I opened a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino for one of our holiday meals.

When it comes to food in our refrigerator or pantry, mold is a bad sign. It's an indication that the food has spoiled and has been exposed to a combination of warmth and moisture resulting in the appearance of a bacterium.

But when I find mold under the capsule of a wine bottle, it tells me that the wine has been aged in good condition in the winery's storage.

Before the wine is bottled and sealed with a capsule, it resides in the winery's cellar (in the case of Brunello, it has to be stored in the winery's cellar for a minimum of four months, although by my calculations, this wine had been aged in bottle for about two years before release). And while cellars are generally maintained at 50-59° Fahrenheit in order to let the wine "mature" slowly, the presence of humidity is fundamental: If the cork dries out, it will contract and allow an excessive amount of oxygen to come into contact with the wine. The cork also needs to remain moderately moist so that it can gently oxygenate the wine thanks to its porous nature.

How was our Brunello? It was great: I used a damp kitchen towel to wipe off the mold and when I pulled the cork, I found it to be perfectly elastic and slightly moist.

Next week we'll post about cork taint and the "fitness" of wine. Have questions about how to evaluate the condition of wine? Please share them in the comment section and I'll address them in next week's posts.

Update: You can find more on cork taint and wine fitness in today's post on the "cork controversy" below.



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22 comments
ramon vancells
ramon vancells

the cause of the mold between the capsule and the cork is too much moisture in the storage of bottles, but never a problem of the cork

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Tom Gutting
Tom Gutting

Jay -- I'd say beware the synthetic corks, at least for wines that you're going to give some time to drink. There have been a number of incidences with wineries finding that, after 3-5 years under synthetic corks, the wines have become "tainted" by some substance in them. A few wineries have even gone away from them and moved to other closures as a result. You could alway re-cork with natural cork. 

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

We have some very old port that still has a few years left before it meets the 21-22 year optimum time frame. What is your opinion on removing the corks and replacing them with synthetic ones? My biggest fear is that the corks are deteriorating and ruining the port.

Tom Gutting
Tom Gutting

It's not a myth. Sniffing the cork is the first act that can put you on guard for a wine suffering from cork taint. There are times when the cork will give off TCA's tell-tale musty aroma, putting you on notice that you should be particularly on the lookout for cork taint when you first taste the wine.

While not every cork that smells tainted means the wine will have been infected, given the unfortunately high rates of cork taint in wine, it's worth taking every precaution to guard against drinking bad bottles. Sometimes, too, corks smell more like cork taint than the wine itself -- at a minimum providing an educational opportunity to get acquainted with what cork taint smells like.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

Please, for the love of God, dispel the cork-sniffing myth/bullshit.

Matthew
Matthew

awww, yeah... cork taint

Artie
Artie

Smelling the cork to judge the quality of the wine is like smelling a sock to judge the quality of the shoes!

JonSomm
JonSomm

Absolutely agree Tom. In my experiences tasting through wines with synthetic corks causes the wines to age odd. Some argue that corks only last roughly 20 years before rotting away. While I have had this happen with wines that hve been stored under non-perfect storage, I have also had wines 30+ years old where the cork is still solid. The difference was these 30+ year old wines have been stored in perfect conditions. Recently I had the pleasure to open a Joseph Swan Zinfandel 1979 where the cork was in presteine condition.

I do think smelling the cork is a bit odd because you are litterly going to taste the wine in several seconds. And if taint is bad you will know after pulling the cork because you can smell it permeating the air around you.

Jeremy Parzen
Jeremy Parzen

Jay, you've already received a number of insights here but I'll address this issue in an upcoming post. Thanks for stopping by! :) 

Dwilkinson
Dwilkinson

The biggest risk with replacing the cork on an existing bottle of wine (or port, in this case) is that if the cork is already deteriorating, you risk further damage to the wine if you spend too much time trying to extract it carefully.

Unless it's a very nice bottle of vintage port, and depending on how many years left before it hits 20, I'd probably just open it early and expect it to not be at it's peak.  But hey, that's what decanters are for.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

I will respectfully disagree, and look forward to Dr. Parzen's take next week.

DD
DD

Smell The Taint.

Isn't that a Spinal Tap album?

Tom Gutting
Tom Gutting

I'm interested in hearing your reasons for why you think smelling a cork can't give you an indication of cork taint. Also interested in hearing Jeremy's take on it.

Jasonofthesea
Jasonofthesea

I think you can gain plenty from smelling a cork - If I see someone smelling a cork, I now know that they think they know EVERYTHING about wine! The proof is in the glass

Kbell
Kbell

Both you guys make good arguments, but if I am opening a bottle for a customer (I am in the industry), I first feel the cork for moistness, and smell it if there is any suspicion of corked bottle. Reason being, it is less offensive then sticking my nose in their glass, and i would hate to recommend a wine and them try it if it is corked, so i like to catch it before i pour.

Tom Gutting
Tom Gutting

Thanks for the input, Nicholas. I think it's a valid point of view. I do disagree with for a couple main reasons. First, the cork itself doesn't need to show a strong aroma of cork taint to be corked. While it is possible for the cork to be off and the wine to be just fine, an off-smelling cork is the first sign that you need to be on your toes with that bottle. This leads to the second reason, intimately joined with the first, that a boldly off cork sometimes leads to only very slight taint in the wine.

It really comes down to whether someone wants to sniff the cork. I say go for it and don't feel bad because there is a legitimate reason to, and you can gain real information from it. Vintage verification used to be a big reason for cork presentation, but many wines nowadays don't even print vintages on their cork. (Although it's still a decent counterfeit measure, to a basic extent, since most identify the winery, if not specific wine, on the cork.) So while it might be silly, I don't think it's a myth or without logic.

Over the past four years of really tracking cork taint closely, I always find that about 5% of wines are corked. Always a sad incident. I'm quite sensitive to cork taint, so I like to be on the lookout for it anywhere. Even five out of 100 bottles adds up over time.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

It's more that, in general, I don't think you gain any useful information from sniffing the cork. If a wine is badly corked, you'll be able to tell by smelling the wine, likely as soon as it's opened; why smell the cork?

As relatively few bottles experience taint in the first place, it's frequently a useless gesture, at any rate.

It is possible for a cork to have an off aroma, while the wine itself is unaffected.

A primary reason for cork presentation is for verification of vintage, not sniffing.

I'm willing to bet that most consumers can't identify mild cork taint, anyway, in the wine or from the cork.

Just a few reasons I think it's silly to sniff the cork.

I will qualify my opinion by acknowledging that I'm no wine expert, which is why I put the question to Jeremy. It has long been my understanding that, for the above reasons and others, cork smelling is kind of a pointless affectation. I'm looking for either confirmation or education, whichever the case may be, and I happen to put stock in Jeremy's opinions.

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