Stick A Cork In It! Or Don't
Nathan Claiborn Every restaurant has a dark corner where these hide.
It happens something like this; you buy a bottle from your local retailer, you get home and open it and the wine smells funny, or you order a bottle in a restaurant and it smells funny. Not just funny, the wine smells like a musty, damp basement, or soaked newspaper and all the fruit is muted, taking a back seat to the dank odors. Your wine is corked. Very few things chap my hide more than corked wine, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Corked wine is disappointing and 100% preventable.
2,4,6-trichloroanisole is the guilty party here. More commonly known as TCA or cork taint, it's a bacterial infection that causes wine to go bad. Most of the time cork taint is a result of the bacteria residing in the cork itself, although TCA can also reside in wooden barrels and other organic material in the winery. Studies variably show that anywhere from 2% to 7% of wine with a cork closure is infected with TCA. You would think, or at least I do, that if you were losing 2%-7% due to a known cause that you would abolish that cause. This is why we see so many more synthetic plastic corks and screw caps on our wine bottles these days.
So why do so many wineries still insist on using cork? The answer here is not that simple. Cork trees grow fairly quickly so cork is renewable and more sustainable than the mined minerals needed for metal screw caps or the petro-chemicals used to produce synthetic corks. I guess the 2%-7% product loss is worth it to some companies who pride themselves on sustainability. I can't imagine how sustainable that kind of loss is to the bottom line though.
The other issue is tradition. Wine bottles have been sealed with cork for a very long time and when screw caps started on the scene most people associated them with cheap or inferior wine. The cork industry spends a lot of money to keep our perceptions skewed in that direction. There's a certain romanticism in the whole cork removal process that people, myself included, enjoy. All of these things considered; cork isn't going anywhere any time soon.
So we are left with corked wine. A recent study from Osaka University in Japan found that human tasters can detect the presence of TCA at concentrations as low as 2-4 parts per trillion. That's trillion with a T! So acute is our sense of smell that the tasters outperformed the instruments used to measure TCA concentration in this study.
Enough with the science lesson though. What do you do when you come across a corked wine? If you bought from a retailer, bring it back to them. Good retailers will exchange them for you. And if you get one at a restaurant, have the server, or sommelier, or manager smell your wine and respectfully ask for a new bottle, it should be no problem because it happens a lot.
When I'm not writing this column, or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB.