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

If corks can cause wine flaws, why do winemakers still use them?
If corks can cause wine flaws, why do winemakers still use them?
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

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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