Corked Wine | What it is and How to Recognise it
What is Corked Wine?
Cork is a unique and natural product derived from specifically grown cork oak trees and therefore there is always the chance that bacteria can carry through. No matter how sanitised the corks are, the pores within the product are susceptible to holding onto tiny bacterias (nothing dangerous in regards to your health).
Corked wine is not when you have a small piece of cork floating around in your wine, this is simply from the cork disintegrating or not being pulled out of the bottle as smoothly. This issue is easily solved by scooping out the pieces as it should not have an effect on the taste at all. If you see crystallisation in your bottle, small white crystals on the cork, there is also no reason to be alarmed. This is a natural by-product, tartrate, that can occur from aged wine and it is not going to affect your bottle’s taste or aroma.
Ultimately, corked wine is the result of a flaw in the wine called Cork Taint, a result of an enzymatic reaction called Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short. When cork oak trees carry chlorophenol (natural flaw within cork) and come into contact with a fungus a reaction occurs with TCA as the result. If bound within the cork rather than left upon the tree there is the likelihood of an airborne reaction between TCA and wine, where the aromatics are destroyed and altered in a way that removes all appealing elements to the bouquet.
How can you tell it is Corked?
For those that have had the chance to smell and taste corked wine it is much easier to re-identify it. Therefore, if you hear someone discussing that their wine is corked it is always good to inquire into being able to smell the bottle also to allow yourself to recognise it at a later date if needed.
There are a few different effects TCA can have on a wine, with the easiest to spot being the odours of musty cardboard, mould, wet dog, and wet newspaper. These smells are quite apparent and can be the most prominent way people find out their wine is corked. Alternatively, the impact of TCA that is more difficult to spot is the removal of aromas, often occurring when there is only a dash of cork taint. For novice wine drinkers it can merely seem as though the wine is flat and lacks flavour, TCA robs the fruity aromas that should be quite evident. The best way to combat a ‘flat’ tasting wine is to check it’s tasting notes, if it is said to be bursting with fruit-forward flavours and has highly rated critiques but you cannot taste it, then it is likely corked.
As with any sense, everyone’s noses detect different levels of cork taint. Some can barely notice the difference while others will take one sniff and find it corked. Always share the bottle or glass around to your drinking or dining partners to get their opinion to ensure you all get the best out of a nice bottle of wine.
How likely is it to have Corked Wine?
Roughly 3-8% wines with cork sealant are often corked, a number that is not too alarming but still too high for any dedicated winemaker or drinker. This problem is irrelevant for wines sealed with screw caps or synthetic corks as no natural bacteria are able to get in unless the bottling process is unsanitary. Around 30% of the world’s wines are sealed by screw cap now, heavily proportioned here in Australia, making it easier to avoid cork sealed wines. Yet the traditional methods upheld in France is one to be admired and is always worth the gamble to taste some wine from some of the oldest vines in the world.
Cork producers are currently undertaking a range of processes to remove the possibility of cork taint within their products. Using methods of bleaching, boiling, and steaming to remove any existing bacteria that may be present in the pores of the cork. Amorin, a large cork producing company has created new technology to help find the corks with TCA before they are ever put near a bottle of wine. A mixture of chemical analyses are performed to ensure only clean corks make it through, yet it also comes at a cost with hire expenses. The discussion around the cost of checking versus the cost of a few corked bottles is occurring within many traditional winemakers’ cellars.
What to do with Corked Wine
Firstly, you will not be harmed if you taste corked wine, the bacteria within the wine is harmless and the alcohol content in the wine can kill off any bacteria that could be harmful to your body.
You have every right to send a bottle back if you are served a corked wine, everyone in the industry knows that it can occur therefore they have measures in place if it does. Many establishments also have an understanding with their supplier for receiving corked bottles and credits within the venue rather than a full loss for the restaurant, so everyone is looked after. Also, don’t forget to take the chance to allow your friends and family to taste and smell the wine too if they are yet to come across a corked wine.