To someone who’s unfamiliar with the Italian wine industry, the phrase “corked wine” may sound like a good thing. After all, people have used cork to seal bottles of wine for centuries. Many of the most valuable bottles available today use cork.
That’s where there’s a misunderstanding.
Corked wine does not mean a bottle of wine that uses cork as a seal.
Instead, a corked wine is one that’s been contaminated by the cork.
This is a surprisingly common issue. In fact, some estimates state that as many as 5% of wines that use a cork as a sealer end up becoming corked wines.
Cork taint gives off a very distinctive smell and will damage the quality of your wine. You need to know what it is and what signs you’re looking for so that you can get a refund for any purchases that end up being corked.
How Does Cork Taint Happen?
Most people assume that cork taint happens when the cork deteriorates and falls into the wine.
While that will certainly cause issues with the wine, it’s not what cork taint is. Instead, that’s usually a sign that the wine has been manhandled or that the cork used to seal it was of a very poor quality. In fact, it’s still possible to drink wine that has bits of cork in it. You can filter the cork pieces out and still enjoy the bottle.
Cork taint is something different.
As a natural substance, cork plays host to all sorts of microorganisms. Many of these are quite benign and will have no effect on the quality of your wine. However, a small number are airborne fungi that start to eat the cork while it’s still a part of the tree. In some cases, these fungi can even contaminate the cork after it’s been processed and used to seal a bottle.
That’s where the problem comes from. These airborne fungi continue eating the cork, which leads to the production of TCA. This is a chemical compound that, when it comes into contact with the wine, completely ruins the wine. It actively changes the wine’s chemical composition, hence it taints the wine.
So, a corked wine is a wine that’s come into contact with TCA due to the cork being contaminated with airborne fungi.
How Can I Tell if a Wine is Corked?
Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to tell if a wine is corked without opening the bottle. Corking doesn’t produce any sort of physical changes to the wine, so you can’t detect it through the bottle.
That means you’re going to have to rely on your senses of smell and taste.
Hopefully, you’ve trained both of these up through your years of drinking wine, so you should instantly be able to tell when something seems a little “off”. That’s should be particularly the case with a wine that you drink often.
Here’s how to use both senses to confirm that something’s wrong.
A corked wine gives off a very distinctive odour, but it’s also one that may fade with repeated sniff. This means that you should always trust your first smell of the wine. Don’t give your nose the chance to get accustomed to the smell, as this can fool you into thinking that the wine isn’t corked.
You’re looking for smells that you wouldn’t normally consider to be the notes of a good wine. Often, you’re going to catch strangely damp fragrances. The smells of wet dog or wet cardboard aren’t uncommon. A smell of musty towels is also a sure sign that a wine is corked. Some also report smelling newspaper.
The point is that your nose detects a smell that clearly shouldn’t be there.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to tell straight away if a wine’s corked just from smell alone. Other odours may affect your senses or you may end up spending so long trying to figure it out that you end up accustomed to the smell.
If that happens, you’re going to have to rely on your tastebuds to tell the difference for you.
When you take a sip, you should immediately notice if the wine tastes “off”. Many people report that corked wines usually have very little taste to them, with none of the fruitiness that you would expect from your wine.
In the worst case scenario, the wine can even end up with a chemical taste. If you detect that, spit the wine out. While TCA won’t cause harm in such small doses, it’s still an unpleasant chemical. Eject it from your mouth and rinse your mouth out with water to get rid of the taste.
So, Only Wines Sealed With Corks Have This Problem?
It’s entirely possible for a wine that uses a screw top to end up corked. That’s because corking can occur inside the barrel. Remember that it’s an airborne fungus that leads to the problem. If that fungus affects the barrel, or it affects cork uses for other bottles of wine that are in close proximity to the bottle you end up buying, you can still end up with a corked wine.
Can You “Fix” The Wine?
While some filtration methods do exist that can get rid of some TCA from wines, these are produced at an industrial level and aren’t available to consumers.
However, it is possible to remove TCA by using polyethylene. You soak the plastic in the wine and it attracts the TCA molecule. You then remove the plastic, thereby removing the TCA.
Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as it may seem. Beyond the practicalities of having polyethylene to hand to deal with a corked wine, there’s also the issue of surface area. The polyethylene needs to have a large enough surface area to attract all of the TCA in the wine.
This means that it’s usually best to just return the wine.
The Final Word
Corked wines are unpleasant and can ruin your tasting experience. If you detect corking, you should immediately return the wine to get a refund.
However, bear in mind that corking isn’t generally the fault of retailers, or even wine producers. It often goes undetected until you smell or taste the wine. That means you shouldn’t assume that all wines from a retailer or producer are corked if one happens to be. It’s just a little burden that affects the entire Italian wine industry.
Any good retailer should refund or replace if you have a corked bottle of wine.