What is Cork Taint?
Have you ever heard someone describe a wine as being "corked?" If so, you might have noticed a look on their face ranging from disappointment to disgust. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it can be confusing. Wouldn’t any bottle sealed with a cork be called a "corked" bottle? It turns out that "corked" wine is affected by something called "cork taint." What is cork taint? Why does it only affect certain bottles? How do you know if a wine is corked or not? What does it smell like? Is there anything that can be done about it? This post will clear those questions up for you!
What is cork taint?
Quite simply, cork taint is a chemical substance in some corks that tastes bad. About 3-5% of bottles sealed with corks will be affected.
For the nerds out there, cork taint can be caused by numerous substances, the most common of which is TCA (or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a completely harmless substance naturally present in some corks resulting from fungi living in cork trees. TCA is mind-blowingly aromatic, being detectable by the human nose in concentrations of 0.003 parts per billion.
How do you know if a bottle is corked?
Detecting cork taint is dependent upon the severity of the problem.
When highly concentrated, cork taint will make the wine smell terrible, with aromas of wet dog, soggy cardboard, crushed aspirin, or moldy basement.
In small concentrations, cork taint is harder to detect and will make the wine taste hollow and muted. Expected flavors will be absent or diminished. It can be especially hard to detect corked wine if you have never experienced it before and haven't tasted a particular wine before. In my experience, the very question "is this wine corked?" indicates that it probably is. There will often be disagreement among the tasters, with some insisting that the wine is flawed with others claiming it’s just "earthy" or that "it will blow off." It is true that some compounds will become less pronounced after exposure to air, but the substances generally associated with cork taint do not "blow off" and the wine will only taste worse over time. The only way to clear up the debate is to open a second bottle if you happen to have another of the same wine on hand.
Is there anything that can be done about cork taint?
Maybe... but it’s probably not worth it. In a 2009 New York Times article, journalist Harold McGee discusses a claim from UC Davis Wine Scientist, Andrew Waterhouse, that TCA (cork taint) can be removed from a wine by putting it in contact with plastic wrap. The problem is that the composition of almost all plastic wrap in the US has changed in recent years and they are no longer useful for cork taint removal. To test the theory, you’d have to find plastic wrap made with PVDC rather than the much more common PVC. Even if you successfully removed TCA from your wine, it would still probably be lacking in flavor and not as good as an unaffected bottle. If you try this method, let us know how it goes!
How can I avoid cork taint?
- Buy multiple bottles. If a bottle is important to you, keep more than one on hand, so if the first one is corked, you have a backup to enjoy.
- Buy wines with screw caps. Wines in bottles with modern screw caps, called "stelvin closures," have many positive features, one of which is that they are very unlikely to be affected by cork taint.
- Keep in mind: if you don’t like a wine, it might be flawed and not simply bad. Ask yourself if it’s corked, and if you think it might be, try another bottle. You wouldn’t want to miss out on a great wine just because you got unlucky with a cork.