How Do You Know a Wine Is Corked (& How Do You Send It Back)?

Categories: Wine Time

Photo by Jeremy Parzen
You can't tell if a wine is "corked" by looking at the cork. The cork is often presented not to evaluate the wine's fitness, but rather to determine the authenticity of its provenance.
Conservative studies estimate that 5 to 6 percent of bottles are affected by some sort of wine defect. That's roughly one in 20bottles.

The most common defect is TCA, otherwise known as trichloroanisole, "a potent taint compound associated with musty odours and flavours in a range of food and beverages," according to the editors of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Some tasters will describe the presence of TCA as "musty" or "wet cardboard." Sometimes it just smells like rotten cork. In most cases, it's unmistakable. But it can also be so faint that even professional tasters (like the ones in the anecdote above) won't immediately notice it.

Some in the wine trade estimate that roughly 50 percent of wine defects are traced to faulty corks. Keep in mind: A cork wine closure is made from the bark of a cork tree, and because it is an organic substance, it is susceptible to a wide range of issues (with TCA being the most common).

But wine defects can also be ascribed to a number of different causes, often originating at the winery or occurring during shipping and storage.

One of the most common is volatile acidity: an acetone "fingernail polish" odor that masks the wine's fruit aroma.

Another is maderization (from the wine name Madeira), whereby a wine is oxidized (exposed to oxygen due to a faulty seal) and possibly cooked (due to exposure to extreme temperature). In a maderized wine, the fruit flavors will be attenuated or entirely absent.

Evaluating the fitness can be one of the most divisive and contentious issues among wine professionals and consumers (especially when the wine in question is an expensive one).

Here are some rules of thumb for determining whether or not a wine is correct:

Make sure the glass isn't tainted by detergent residue or dust.

This is a major problem in restaurants, where wine glasses are often cleaned in dishwashers using reclaimed water. It's also a big issue at home, where wine glasses often collect dust when not in use. (See this post on priming your stemware.)

Give the wine a healthy swirl and then stick your nose into the glass.

You should be able to tell whether or not the wine is correct by smelling it. The first thing to note is the presence or absence of fruit aromas. Wine is made from fruit and it should smell like fruit. If you don't detect any fruit aromas or you detect a foul aroma that masks the fruit, you most likely have a corked, oxidized or maderized wine.

Take your time when evaluating the wine.

In more cases than not, foul odors will "blow off" after a few minutes. They're often due to "reduction," a phenomenon whereby the wine has not been exposed to enough oxygen during aging. It might smell like a fart, and it will probably go away after a few minutes. Give the wine some time to "open up" in the glass before you determine whether or not it's corked or otherwise defective.

Remember that there is a big difference between a wine that is corked and wine that you simply don't like.

Just because you don't like the wine doesn't mean that it's corked or faulty. Before you order or purchase a bottle of wine you've never had before, consult with your server or wine salesperson and let him or her know what kind of wine you like. If ordering a bottle of wine that you already know, you should have a recollection and expectation of what it should taste like. If it smells or tastes radically different from the way it has in your past experience, it might be faulty.

So how do you send a bottle back when you think it's corked? I'll address that extremely sticky issue in next week's post.

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Personally, I always smell the underside of the cork to identify taint.  Smelling the cork does in fact serve a purpose, as that's where the TCA exists, and then infects wine.


We got a corked bottle of the '09 Damilano Barolo at Coppa Osteria this past week. We notified the server who sent the manager to the table. We asked him to taste it to see if he picked up what we were sniffing. He did, and quickly moved to replace the bottle, tasting first the replacement to make sure it was good. Great service all around.


Don't smell the cork, smell the wine. Then eat the cork. Or so I'm told.

Bruce_Are topcommenter

Corked or not, you can still catch a good buzz off it.


@blackjackdavid  that's great to hear. That's how it should happen. Next week I'll write about how to send a bad bottle back.


@Bruce_Are  in many cases, a fault in wine doesn't make it undrinkable. In fact, certain technical flaws are considered tolerable in certain circles (like Natural wine).


@DoBianchi @randonneur  

no offense, and I know it's legend in Italy to do this, but it has no beneficial effects, except maybe to the cook's ego


@Bruce_Are @donatello  

That's not a typo, it's a trend. And a very sad, annoying trend. Please see the below. 

Please read the beneath.


@DoBianchi @donatello @randonneur  

The below is from The Splendid Table:

All of these dishes can be readily accomplished by the home cook. The stumbling block, according to reigning "wisdom," is that octopus is so tough that extraordinary measures must be taken to tenderize it. And if you ask five different people what these measures are you are likely to get five different answers, all arcane - which goes a long way toward explaining why no one cooks octopus at home. A Greek cook may tell you to beat it against some rocks (actually a contemporary would probably tell you to throw it against the kitchen sink repeatedly). A Spanish cook will dip it into boiling water three times, then cook it in a copper pot - only copper will do. An Italian might cook it with two corks. The Japanese rub it all over with salt, or knead it with grated daikon, then slice the meat at different angles, with varying strokes.


@KaitlinS @DoBianchi @randonneur  some people believe it's just a myth but I've seen so many chefs do it: they throw a cork into the pot with boiling octopus. And, at least according to one chef I used to work with, it doesn't matter if the wine was corked. Some chefs swear by it.

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