I have written in the past (at length) about corked wines, specifically, those wines affected by TCA. TCA causes off aromas and flavors that are variously described as damp basement, wet newspaper, or wet dog among a number of other not so flattering descriptors. Two recent wines, however, crystallized for me the problem presented by corked taint.
The first occurred at a recent distributor tasting. I smelled a wine, and it seemed a bit off but not obviously corked to me. So I tasted the wine. It seemed tremendously disappointing considering the pedigree and price (premier cru, north of $100 wholesale). My girlfriend – who is more sensitive to cork taint than I am – subsequently smelled the wine and said simply, “It’s corked.”
I was surprised. As I smelled the wine again though, there lurking in the background was a small amount of cork taint that I hadn’t initially picked up on (the short pours probably didn’t assist here). We brought the problem to the attention of the person who was pouring the wine, who said he had checked the bottle when he opened it but hadn’t detected any taint – in fact, he had already poured through half the bottle. He rechecked it and still didn’t detect any taint but opened another bottle just the same. The second bottle was completely different than the first in terms of aromas and flavors. It was actually, in my mind, the best wine of the tasting.
The next case occurred at home. I opened a bottle of wine, smelled the cork and thought it smelled lightly corked but decided to include it in a flight of wines that I was tasting anyway to see if the taint presented itself. Tasting through the wines, I noticed one wine that smelled very faintly tainted that corresponded to cork of the original wine. Strangely though, I only noticed the cork taint one time. After that, I couldn’t smell or taste it again.
So I brought the wine over to my girlfriend who is, again, more sensitive than I am to cork taint. She thought that the wine smelled and tasted fine. I was befuddled. The cork had definitely smelled lightly tainted as had the wine, at least at first. However, she couldn’t smell or taste the taint, and I couldn’t any longer either. Smelling the wine the next day, however, it was very obviously corked to both of us (cork taint becomes more noticeable over time).
What do I make of these two situations? It seems clear that winemakers and winery representatives are regularly pouring wines for consumers that are corked. This is no fault of their own necessarily. The taint is simply below their detection threshold. In the case of the distributor tasting, half the bottle had already been poured and no one had noticed (or perhaps people had just kept quiet as it is an awkward situation). I might not have noticed if my girlfriend hadn’t brought it to my attention. In the case of the second wine, I might not have noticed the wine was corked if someone else had poured the wine for me and I had not initially smelled the cork. As a reviewer, I know that – while I am quite sensitive to cork taint – I have almost certainly tasted wines that were corked but that were below my detection threshold. Personally, I find both of these things disturbing.
Now you can argue that, if no one notices that the wine is corked, what’s the difference? Indeed, I have seen friends and colleagues drink wines that were corked where they were unable to smell or taste the taint. They didn’t care. But I have also seen how cork taint can transform the aromas, flavors and feel of a wine to a greater or lesser extent. Is it really that okay if no one notices? It is certainly not the wine that the winemaker intended.
And therein lies the problem. The wine might be changed – in some cases profoundly – but no one would necessarily know it or be able to identify it even if they know how to identify corked wines. To me, that seems deeply troubling.
To be clear, I don’t expect corks to go anywhere any time soon. And I’m not necessarily saying that they should. But is the present state the best that we can do? You can argue – as many do – that cork taint is simply part of the business and that the mission should be to educate people about how it presents itself so people can identify corked bottles and return them.
There is some logic to this. However, this doesn’t do any good if a person simply can’t smell it because it is below their detection threshold. What about those bottles? People might simply think that they are bad wines. In the case of the distributor tasting, these were restaurateurs and retailers. Did drinking the corked wine potentially affect their buying decision? It certainly seems likely. Did it affect their perception of the winery? Quite possibly.
Part of me has always assumed – as I believe others do as well – that knowing what corked wines smell and taste like, I would be able to identify a corked wine if it were put in front of me. But after these two wines and seeing how radically different people are in their sensitivity to cork taint, I’m not so sure. If I were a winemaker, I’m not sure I would be okay with that. As a wine reviewer, I am certainly not.
I think that cork suppliers are getting better at cleaning their product. I use one supplier ONE time for I had terrible corks, terrible quality, and I personally opened a dozen corked bottles. I switched to a new supplier (and continue to use them) and I opened my first corked bottled (of my product) in a year. I get high grade corks and they cost a lot.
Now, in your experience, you may be drinking wines that are many years old when the cleaning technology was not as advanced. You *may be* drinking wines from producers that are using low quality or low grade to cut costs..I hope not. But I guess what I am saying is that there are lots of cork suppliers, cleaning/washing techniques, grade quality and cost.
As for sensory perception, I think I am very sensitive. When I smell a cork after opening the bottle, if it smells sweet we are good to go. If it has even a hint of damp basement…I know it is tainted. In my opinion, the cork always nose. :-)
As someone who works in a tasting room, I agree that light cork taint is pretty easy to miss, though its muting effects on the flavors of the wine are not. That's why it's so important to know the wines you're pouring well enough to know when they aren't displaying their usual aromas/flavors, even if you can't sniff out the flaw. But distributors looking to pick up a brand and consumers opening a bottle for dinner usually aren't going to have that familiarity with the wine, and frankly, I'm not really sure how to solve that problem.
As a critic, I hate it when I am not sure. I do not believe that the consumer is as concerned. However, I know where you are going with this. If a wine is off and the consumer does not know why, they may never buy that label again because they do not understand that the cork had a flaw. This should be a problem for the winery. Corks are not going away anytime soon but it is a problem that we have to recognize.
Great article and ironic timing bc my wife and I just cracked and decanted a bottle tonight that I thought had cork taint. She disagreed but I've always thought that I've been more sensitive to cork taint than she has. This was a wine we've enjoyed many times before so it leads me to think it was just an 'off' bottle. Great insight and cheers!
The message is simple. Sometimes the only way to tell if a wine is affected at or just below threshold level is to compare it to a bottle known to be good. How many consumers can do that? Wine producers that have had enough simply refuse to put consumers in that position, and switch to alternate closures such as twist-off caps or glass stoppers. No other product tolerates such a high failure rate as wine does with cork.
Individual tasters show considerable day-to-day and even flight-to-flight variation in their ability to detect TCA. Sensitization and desensitization has also been documented. That's why most cork producers and concerned winemakers use panels of tasters to evaluate TCA.
This touches on some of that:
I'm surprised at how few bottles we have returned to our winery because of TCA–both on the consumer side and by restaurants and retailers. I can count the amount of returned bottles from 2012 on one hand.
I can only assume this means that people are drinking our wine without knowing that the wine is tainted, then making the conclusion that they weren't wild about our wine, without knowing why. Bummer, but I suppose that's just part of the game.
Sean, you bring up several good points in this post regarding TCA, the wine industry’s continued tolerance for faults, and consistency. While TCA has continued to decrease over the years, the percentage of wines affected by TCA still remain at around 3 – 5%. That’s nearly 1 million bottles of wine that are ruined each day by closure fault. What other industry, especially the food and beverage industry, accepts such a high failure rate?
Harvey is correct in that many winemakers have had enough and are now switching to alternative closures. That is how my company, Nomacorc, came into existence. Our founder was an entrepreneur and also a wine connoisseur who was frustrated at the amount of his bottles that were ruined by TCA. He founded Nomacorc in 1999 with the hopes of offering a solution for winemakers seeking to provide consistent, fault-free wines. We have now grown to be the largest manufacturer of alternative closures in the world – producing nearly 2.4 billion synthetic closures annually.
The other point that you bring up in your article is consistency. Whether a consumer has a high or low tolerance for faults, winemakers should have their wines perform consistent from bottle to bottle. Being a natural product, natural cork has inconsistences that can affect the profile of a wine. Nomacorc closures are highly engineered using a patented co-extrusion technology that can precisely control the amount of oxygen ingress into the wine based on the winemakers’ intentions.
Why risk your brand, winery, and/or business based on a product that uses 14th century technology versus a product using 21st century technology?
TCA is not the only issue, corks also have a variable rate of oxygen transfer. We found in some delicate white wines the rate of oxidation in over 10% made them dull and papery. Solution was moving to screw caps and provide the customer with the consistency they deserve.