By Dan Berger
Corked wine has ruined more dining experiences than poorly cooked main dishes, and two episodes I experienced only added fuel to the fire of my revulsion for this problem.
I have written about corkiness before, and though the situation has improved some, it’s still extant.
It started with a sad story told to me by a friend. He chose Dec. 31, 1999, to host a fancy dinner party for a number of wine lovers. And he decided to open a magnum of a mature Bordeaux. You guessed it: it was corked.
Shortly thereafter I placed into a foam carrier a bottle of a 1982 Californian reserve Cabernet I had bought on release, and was then well into the aged cycle. I hauled it half way around the world to serve to Australian wine makers at a dinner in the Coonawarra.
Weeks after that, to pair with homemade pizza, I pulled out a bottle of a very promising 1990 Italian Chianti Reserva from a noted producer I had been saving for just such an occasion.
As you can probably guess, both bottles ended up in the sink.
The Reserve Cabernet was grossly corked. The Chianti was only slightly affected by the chemical TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which leaves a moldy, wet cardboard-y smell and taste.
Most people would not have identified the Chianti as corked. Some would have said the aroma was just the wine’s maturity and might have concluded that this Chianti (maybe all Chianti) shouldn’t be aged 10 years, let alone 20.
Here is a key point: this TCA taint problem isn’t an all-or-nothing sort of thing. TCA exists at various levels, and ruins a lot more wines than just those labeled “corked.”
Scientists say that most professional tasters can detect TCA at about three parts per trillion.
However, TCA is chemically found in corks at lower-than-detectable levels, and most professional wine tasters have experienced the situation where a wine is seen as not really corked, but “not quite right.”
I experienced this with a wine maker at his winery some years ago. A red wine was poured. I began evaluating it. Suddenly the wine maker said, “Oops, it’s off.”
I said the wine seemed fine — and I’m very sensitive to cork taint. He said he knew the wine, and that the cork had affected it. He got another.
Sure enough, the second bottle was better, but still I couldn’t detect the “corkiness” in the first bottle. Yet the wine maker swore that at some low level the cork had affected the wine.
The absurdity of this problem is that it is avoidable. I have long advocated the screwcap for younger, early-drinking wines, but even if that doesn’t work for social reasons (“people like hearing the cork pop,” I have been told by merchants and restaurateurs) there are solutions. One of them is the use of synthetic closures, some of which now mimic real cork in their aging cycles.
Another solution is agglomerate corks, chopped-up pieces of cork or cork dust held together with glue or other forms of adhesive.
Cork taint is usually seen in 3% to 4% of natural cork-finished bottles. It doesn’t sound like much, but at 4%, it means that one bottle out of every two cases will be corked.
Thus the number of people who get corked wines is huge, in the millions per year.
Let’s use this modest yardstick to measure it: Assume a winery makes three million cases per year of a Chardonnay, or 36 million bottles. Even if TCA infects only 1% of this wine, then 360,000 bottles will be TCA tainted!
And this is only one winery, and one wine, and using a very conservative estimate.
Consumers have a solution, though it isn’t very pleasant.
As soon as you detect that a bottle is corked, re-stopper it with the same cork, put it into a refrigerator, and the next day take it back to the place where it was purchased. And ask for a refund.
Even if the wine is a mature red bought years ago, take it back.
Wineries should stand behind their products, and the use of a bad cork should not be the consumer’s assumed risk. Reputable wine merchants I have spoken with in the past said they will take back bottles that are clearly corked, and will get credit for them from the winery or wholesaler.
Some retailers may become irate. If they decline to refund your money, or give you a new bottle, take your business elsewhere.