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A corked wine shows signs of cork taint. This taint is the result of a complex chemical reaction between chlorophenols and microscopic fungi and is usually caused by a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (or TCA) which basically renders wine out of condition to varying degrees.
How does cork taint occur?
The term 'cork taint' is something of a misnomer, as while the pollutant is very happily at home in natural cork, it can be found throughout nature. TCA can also affect wine sealed with alternative closures, soft drinks and even mineral water. It may also, in fact, originate from areas within the winery, including the bottling equipment. We have observed samples from absolutely spotless cellars where immaculate stainless steel vats were housed aboard infected wooden plinths of just one inch in height. There are a number of examples of top-notch properties which, in the very act of upgrading cellars, introduced air-conditioning and, by eliminating natural currents of air, exacerbated the potential for a TCA problem.
How do I tell if a wine is corked?
The most reliable indicator of cork taint is a musty smell and taste, often described as 'damp cardboard', but it may simply not show at its best. Many consumers declare the wine to be “too oaky” or “too rustic” for their taste when, in fact, the wine is corked.
Can I identify a corked bottle before opening?
Cork taint is invisible and seemingly manifests itself at random after bottle closure. The physical condition of the cork is actually irrelevant. Even where, with older wines, the cork may break or disintegrate completely, the wine can be perfectly sound – if rather doubtful aesthetically – with crumbs of cork on the surface. The degree of nastiness can vary considerable from whiplash-inducing undrinkable to a very vague hint that all is not well. If in doubt, particularly in a restaurant environment, leave the wine for a while in the glass. There can be slightly musty notes on newly pulling a cork. These will dissipate with a little aeration, if the wine is clean. If corked, the wine will deteriorate to a level where there is soon no doubt.
What are the alternatives to cork?
There are several alternatives to natural cork, which have found support in different quarters. These include screwcaps (frequently known as Stelvin), plastic corks and crown caps.
Do alternative closures work?
It is perhaps a surprise to learn that modern science has been unable to come up with a synthetic version of cork which shares the flexibility of natural cork. Cork’s great benefit lies in its being able both to be squeezed and to expand. Synthetic corks lack this ability but are a short-term solution and they are adequate for wines destined for early consumption. Screwcaps are rapidly becoming the closure of preference for short-term drinking. Gradually their image is improving and screwcaps (or Stelvin) are now much less often equated with cheap and nasty. The sheet theatre of pulling a cork is somewhat lost with Stelvin but, at least, the consumer can be more confident about their wine. Screwcaps do not have a totally pristine record however. TCA is still a possibility and, with no chance of any oxygen exchange, some less attractive elements in wine can become more obvious over time – sulphur elements in particular.
The debate continues but it is now a much more open debate. Tests seem only to prove that no closure is 100% perfect so science is being challenged to solve the issues. Cork manufacturers are looking to reduce the occurrence of cork taint whilst new and inventive alternatives are being trialed. Cork, whilst flawed, is proving difficult to replace.